Richard Scholar


On his book Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

Cover Interview of July 14, 2021

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I’d like readers to find their way to the book’s opening page. That page leads into the center of the book’s preoccupations by an indirect route, for it reveals an émigré word at work in the unlikely setting of Winnie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne’s classic story for children of all ages. Bon-hommy is the French word. I show how it crackles with the energy of a literary work that, in a single sentence, reveals so much about English language and culture in its centuries-old, entangled, relation with French. Here is the page:

It is widely to be observed that those wishing, at little effort, to lend a certain intrigue to their English conversation season it with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi or some other soupçon of Gallic garniture. Even the introverted Eeyore, on occasion, reaches for the mot juste. Eeyore is the old grey donkey who lives in a corner of a field that is forever England in A. A. Milne’s stories about Winnie-the-Pooh and friends. In chapter 6 of Winnie-the-Pooh, it is Eeyore’s birthday, a fact that his friends have all forgotten. When Pooh Bear chances upon Eeyore and wishes him a good morning, Eeyore doubts that it is a good morning, hinting darkly: “We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.” Pooh asks Eeyore to explain. The old grey donkey offers the following list of equivalent words and phrases: “Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.” A puzzled Pooh asks, “What mulberry bush is that?”, in response to which the donkey merely continues his variations on the theme: “‘Bon-hommy’, went on Eeyore gloomily. ‘French word meaning bonhommy,’ he explained. ‘I’m not complaining, but There It Is.’”

Et voila?: There It Is, indeed, the French word that bursts into flower in the midst of the most English sentence. A word of conspicuously French derivation serves Eeyore’s purposes well. It would be too painful for him to name in plain English the simple happiness of being alive that the irrepressible Pooh clearly possesses that morning and which the old grey donkey can’t and doesn’t, at the best of times, but especially when it is his birthday and They have all Forgotten. Instead, Eeyore names obliquely the capacity for happiness that is denied him, alluding to popular English rhymes that speak of it and producing synonyms that name it. He brilliantly introduces the last of these synonyms, bon-hommy, as a French word possessing the meaning of the selfsame word in English. He thereby specifies that meaning as evident to the likes even of Pooh Bear, while using the Frenchness of the word to emphasize its distance from himself, the discontented grey English donkey. His single-word code mixing of French in English at once connects him to, and separates him from, French ways of saying and being.

Eeyore’s flourishing of bon-hommy is an act of expressive indirection that reveals much about the history of English in its centuries-old relation with French…



Henry M. Cowles


On his book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey

Cover Interview of July 07, 2021

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I think a lot of these points come together in Chapter 6, which is called “Animal Intelligence.” The title gives a pretty good sense of what’s in there: scientists trying to figure out how all kinds of non-human animals learn to solve problems and navigate their environments.

Aside from the fascinating stories, the chapter will give readers a window onto how far afield these debates about method really got. Because it shouldn’t be obvious that someone studying a rat in a maze is also, at the same time, thinking carefully about the foundations of science. But that’s the story, that’s what they were doing.

Working within the framework of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the founders of what was called “comparative psychology” at the time were convinced that you could explain even the highest levels of cognition by appealing to an evolutionary process. And if you believe that, then there’s a story to tell connecting the rat in the maze to the scientist studying that rat. Both of them are, in some sense, engaging in an experimental procedure based in trial and error.

Of course, there’s a difference between what rats do when they hunt for cheese and what scientists do when they write on their clipboards. A big difference. But the fact that it’s a difference of degree, rather than kind, really mattered to these psychologists.

Seeing the roots of your own method “out there” in other animals started to naturalize that method. Comparative psychologists could appeal to this natural history of method as a way to say “See—I’m solving problems in my field the way they’re meant to be solved!”

Like I said, there are problems with this approach. Taken too far, it implies that a rat or a kid or a politically motivated skeptic has as much authority as a trained scientist.

But we don’t have to take it that far. In the next chapter, on the application of these ideas in schools, we see how this inclusive approach to scientific thinking got translated into a successful curriculum that’s still being used in science education today.

However, this approach got shorn of its context. Once it started moving around without the natural history that buttressed it, that’s when we start to see this idea of “the scientific method” emerge as science’s brand, as a way to separate it from society.



Marni Reva Kessler


On her book Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art

Cover Interview of June 30, 2021

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If a reader picked up Discomfort Food at a bookstore—enticed, I hope, by the suggestive cover—I would be so pleased if they looked through the introduction “Beginnings,” where I establish the contours of my argument, and the epilogue “‘Ending with the Beginning,’” in which I return to the more personal aspect of the book’s central premise, that representations of food have the ability to embody and express significance not only for the artist who imagined the work in the first place, but also for the viewer who may look at it however many years later. But even more, inherent in the titles of both the introduction and the epilogue is the notion that my own beginnings—in my family of origin, as a graduate student, as an academic—are profoundly braided with the analysis and archival research that form the basis of the study and are, to my mind, central to the project’s texture and ultimately, to its realization.

If a browser could indulge me further and read the short section in chapter one titled “The Lure of the Painting,” they could see even more concretely exactly how my beginnings are woven into the book’s core. Here, I describe the particular and very personal pull of Manet’s Fish (Still Life) and in so doing, I take a risk by both arguing and demonstrating that intermingling the scholarly and archival with the deeply personal yields rich interpretive possibility. Defying the (largely unspoken, but nevertheless entrenched) notion that academic work should remain distinct from the private, I pursue some of the reasons why this canvas “simultaneously beckons and repulses me” and find that it, quite unexpectedly, brings me to certain of my own memories. My delight in the painting’s intensely visceral materiality is tinged, I find, with measures of revulsion, sorrow, mournfulness, and longing, and I trace those visceral responses to fishing as a girl in the Catskill Mountains, to a photograph of my grandfather that sat on my grandmother’s dresser, and to wistful thoughts of my mother cooking in our kitchen in Brooklyn. “For even images of as-yet-unprepared raw ingredients [in Manet’s painting],” I discover, “can bear the ineffable traces of the effable past.” The sense of loss and sorrow that undergirds my interpretation of Fish (Still Life), also has the effect of greatly enhancing it. This willingness to allow my own thoughts to unspool, to reach back to long-forgotten memories even as I comb the archives and plumb the depths of the surface of the painting, I claim, is what leads me to see the deep poignance of this scattered array of piscine creatures and a lemon that is the color of the sun. My own memories, my losses and my sorrows, in other words, also “illuminate my path.”



Charles Camic


On his book Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics

Cover Interview of June 23, 2021

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I would be happy if readers opened Chapter 3, “Beginnings.” Here I tell a family story and a national story as a prelude to the story of Thorstein Veblen as an intellectual innovator.

The family story is that of Thomas and Kari Veblen, a newly married couple who saw few opportunities in their native Norway. So, in 1847 they crossed the Atlantic in a whaling tub and made their way to the upper Midwest where, after a rough start, they built a prosperous farm, where they adopted the latest technological innovations.

Simultaneously, Thomas and Kari tended carefully to the schooling of their nine children, enrolling seven of them (including two daughters) in the preparatory program of a nearby college, where four of them then continued their studies into the college proper.

By a stroke of fortune, that college was Carleton College, named for a Boston brass manufacturer who in 1871 gifted the school with a million dollars (in today’s dollars), the largest sum given up to then to a Midwestern college. Spending wisely, the college soon boasted a cutting-edge curriculum in the natural sciences (which taught evolutionary theory with approval), the humanities, and the social sciences.

In the social sciences, Carleton established one of America’s first professorships in the subject of political economy, hiring for it the future giant of American (neoclassical) economics, John Bates Clark. Following Clark’s example, Veblen then decided to attend graduate school and, for this reason, to leave the farmlands to live in the industrializing cities of Baltimore and Chicago (with many destinations in between). The timing of this move coincided with the birth of graduate schools in the United States, which were then trumpeting their use of modern scientific methods to study the natural world and the social world, economic life in particular.

In microcosm, this saga was the drama of postbellum America: the Great Atlantic Migration, the agricultural settlement of the Midwest, the explosive takeoff of urbanization and industrialization, the transformation of higher education through capitalist philanthropy, and the celebration of scientific methods.

All of these epochal developments enveloped the family of Thomas and Kari Veblen and also buffeted the budding economist in their midst. In the third chapter of my book, the reader sees the nesting of these Russian dolls.



Dennis C. Rasmussen


On his book Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders

Cover Interview of June 16, 2021

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One of the highlights of the book, I think, comes in the chapter on Jefferson and slavery. The Missouri crisis of 1819-21, which revolved around whether Missouri would be admitted to the union as a free state or a slave state, provoked from Jefferson an unforgettable expression of regret: “I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of ’76 to acquire self-government and happiness to their country is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.” This line is all the more striking because it came from a figure who had long been one of the most optimistic of the founders.

Though he was a major slaveholder himself, Jefferson fought a reasonably forceful battle against the institution early in his career, at least in the political realm. He tried to include a harsh denunciation of slavery in the Declaration of Independence; he drew up statutes that would have gradually abolished slavery in his home state of Virginia; and he helped to draft a bill that would have banned slavery from any of the nation’s western territories. Alas, his efforts to combat slavery—however qualified and ultimately futile—all but ceased after the 1780s.

In fact, by the end of his life Jefferson actively supported the expansion of slavery into new territory. His belief, at that point, was that the expansion of slavery would not lead to an increase in the number of enslaved people, only to their being more spread out, and that if there were more slaveholders in more places, then the institution would be easier to eradicate because each individual slaveholder would keep fewer people in bondage and so have less to lose from emancipation. It was, of course, manifestly delusional to think that the demise of slavery could be brought about by giving it free rein—by making the problem more national rather than narrowly sectional in scope. This delusion led to one of the more biting lines of the book: “Jefferson had done almost nothing to combat slavery since the 1780s, but what he did during the Missouri crisis was much worse than nothing: he lent his powerful name to the forces seeking to expand slavery. He still considered himself to be an opponent of the institution, but by this point one might fairly say that with enemies like Jefferson, slavery hardly needed friends.”



Patricia Sullivan


On her book Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White

Cover Interview of June 09, 2021

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Some readers will probably turn to the images first—and that is a good place to start. There are two inserts that tell the story in pictures. We see Kennedy on the phone at 2 a.m. with an aide in Montgomery during the peak violence of the Freedom Rides; Bob Moses working on voter registration in Mississippi; Kennedy visiting with Black children whose schools were closed for four years in Prince Edward County, Virginia; Kennedy as a presidential candidate speaking to a rally organized by the Watts Writers Workshop in Los Angeles; and RFK walking through the rubble in Washington DC after the city exploded in the wake of King’s assassination. On June 14, 1963, Bobby Kennedy addressed protesters gathered outside the Justice Department, who called for federal action to end segregation in the South. By this point, Justice Department lawyers were hard at work drafting a strong civil rights bill. Library of Congress.

One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 12, “Suppose God is Black.” It opens with two defining and overlapping events: Robert Kennedy’s five-day long trip through South Africa and the “March against Fear” in Mississippi to promote voter registration. Following a police assault and arrest in Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael famously issued the call for Black Power. It had an electrifying impact. Mainstream media, moderate civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins, and most of the political establishment condemned Black Power as racist and divisive. Kennedy did not. He praised the March for showing that Black citizens would keep up their efforts “until they establish equality.” At the end of August, Look magazine published an article by Kennedy on his trip to South Africa entitled, “Suppose God is Black.” The title and his image were prominently featured on the cover. It was a bold statement by a man of deep faith that invited a different angle of vision during the summer of Black Power.

Focusing on the summer of 1966, the third consecutive summer of urban uprisings, the chapter crystalizes fundamental differences between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It looks beyond the personality differences that absorbed the media and biographers and historians. The stark differences in how they responded to the racial crisis in the cities was a key factor in Kennedy’s decision to challenge LBJ for the presidency. Johnson had become obsessed with winning the war in Vietnam to the detriment of the War on Poverty. He saw the urban crisis as a law and order problem and saw the solution as more vigorous law enforcement.

In the fall of 1966, Kennedy told 15,000 students at UC Berkeley that America had one choice: “face our difficulties and strive to overcome them, or turn away, bringing increasing repression, increasing human pain, and civil strife.” No national concern was more pressing, he emphasized, than “the revolution within our gates, the struggle of the Negro American for full equality and full freedom.”



Joan Wallach Scott


On her book On the Judgment of History

Cover Interview of June 02, 2021

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If a reader happened upon the book in a bookstore, I’d hope they would read the first pages of the introduction, which explains why I came to do the book; and then perhaps the chapter on the reparations movement, which speaks to our present in critical and, I like to think, insightful ways. In that chapter I focus on the writing on the subject of reparations by the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. He makes the case for reparations less as specific financial repayment of a debt long owed, and rather as something he calls “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal (…). Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.” Here history is a critical rewriting of the past; a form of accounting for past wrongs. The anthropologist David Scott calls for a “moral and reparatory history”, by which he means what Coates does: a history that recognizes as untenable, the progressive narrative of American democracy, replacing it with a more complicated, uneven story in which time and place have multiple valences.

Reading that third chapter illustrates my own preoccupation, developed more fully in the epilogue, about what it means to write “critical history”. That history asks us to examine the categories of analysis we use to think about the past, to ask what interpretive and political ends they might serve, and to explore how present concerns influence what we make of past events. Where does the idea come from that history should constitute a coherent, linear narrative, a singular story of national development? What are the other ways of writing that history, for example as a story of proposals and plans offered but rejected that political units consist of small communal associations instead of large, centralized nation-states? What kinds of argument were made on either side? How did one view prevail over the other and, in the process, erase the losing position from visibility for the future? Maybe we should add the epilogue to the list of readings for a browser to at least glance at. The introduction and epilogue provide a theoretical frame for the three substantive historical chapters.



Stephen Bates


On his book An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee That Redefined Freedom of the Press

Cover Interview of May 26, 2021

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Part of the backdrop to the Commission on Freedom of the Press is the acrimonious relationship between President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and the press. I knew a bit about the anti-FDR venom in the right-wing press, especially the Chicago Tribune, which was published by the arch-conservative Colonel Robert R. McCormick, but I had no idea of President Roosevelt’s extensive efforts to get even with McCormick and other critics.

The Roosevelt administration repeatedly investigated the Tribune for criminal prosecution. Shortly before Pearl Harbor, the paper revealed that the government had drawn up secret contingency plans for invading Europe. This was big news, because FDR at the time was insisting that he had no intention of getting involved in the war. Roosevelt’s aide Harold Ickes wanted to prosecute the newspaper for treason, and the FBI conducted an investigation, though nothing came of it.

Then in 1942, after the Battle of Midway, a Tribune article suggested, correctly, that the military had broken the Japanese communications code. FDR talked of sending the Marines to occupy Tribune Tower in Chicago, as though it were enemy headquarters. Senator (later vice-president) Harry Truman wanted Colonel McCormick placed before a firing squad. The President repeatedly instructed the Justice Department to get a grand jury to indict the paper, but the grand jurors refused.

The Justice Department also considered prosecuting the Tribune for sedition based on its news coverage. According to a content analysis conducted at the Library of Congress, some themes in Tribune coverage overlapped with themes in Axis propaganda. Both, for instance, said that FDR was corrupt and that he was bungling the war effort. A Justice Department attorney wanted to seek an indictment. It didn’t matter whether editors were consciously trying to help the Axis, he said; all that mattered was the effect on readers. No prosecution took place, but FDR in a Fireside Chat denounced “bogus patriots who (...) echo the sentiments of the propagandists in Tokyo and Berlin.”

The administration did launch an antitrust action against the Associated Press and its board. FBI agents interrogated McCormick and other board members, which some of them considered strong-arm tactics. The attorney general argued against bringing the case, but the President insisted. Finally, the Justice Department filed a civil enforcement action against the AP, backed by threats to bring criminal prosecutions against board members personally if they didn’t back down. The federal antitrust chief told Colonel McCormick to expect to be indicted. The government won its civil case, and the AP complied. Board members weren’t prosecuted. The antitrust case was justifiable, as the Supreme Court ultimately ruled, but the President’s involvement was indefensible.

In their hatred of the press, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump may have been more outspoken than FDR, but even they didn’t go as far as he did in trying to use the machinery of the federal government to get even with critics.



Eric Weisbard


On his book Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music

Cover Interview of May 19, 2021

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I’d hope that a browsing reader would check out a trio of entries (most are under 1000 words!) and get a sniff of the thing. For example:

Early in the book: Emma Bell Miles, first to write about Americana, which she or Harper’s called “Real American Music” in 1904—Appalachian mountain stuff. Split between the city-bourgeois world she distrusted and Appalachians who distrusted her, she caught gender divides shaping cultural ones: “The woman belongs to the race, to the old people. He is a part of the young nation. His first songs are yodels.” A poem—she scraped to fund a collection; a posthumous one, from 1930, first proved her endurance—contrasted “The Banjo and the Loom”, domesticity and “Possum up a ‘simmon-tree” minstrel scamp. Her story “The Dulcimore”—among those collected in 2016—sketched a mother exiled by love to mountains hardship watching a daughter do the same for a blacksmith who’d made her the lap instrument.

Middle: Mystery Train author Greil Marcus. To invoke a fellow critic, the “Ellen Willis test” was to judge sexism by how a singer’s words resonated when you imagined a woman performing them. The undeclared Greil Marcus test was to take each cultural item, noble or sordid, as it came, and see if the dough leavened, see if the candle kept, unfathomably, burning. Those everlasting flames he collected. Not like most collectors, genre definers. His was a critic’s compendium: songs, film scenes, ad hypes, all sorts of performances that affected him entered in the register and given fitting prose.

Late: poet-philosopher Fred Moten. With Burning Spear’s dub-heavy “do you remember the days of slavery?” filling his head, Moten could connect cultural studies interpellation and vaudeville interpolation, then bluntly demand of black British cultural studies scholar Paul Gilroy, antithetical to U.S. blackness, “Who the fuck you talking to?” Sound to him mattered as “the site of a kind of unruly music that moves in disruptive, improvisational excess … a certain lawless, fugitive theatricality.” The Universal Machine began: “what you have here is a swarm”. But what particulars swarmed. Who except Moten could link philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s disdain for dancing civilization to Springsteen manager, Jon Landau, hearing indulgence rather than expansiveness in Curtis Mayfield? He didn’t take sides, he took asides.



Scott Peeples


On his book The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City

Cover Interview of May 12, 2021

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The book is illustrated with original photographs of “Poe places” by Michelle Van Parys; it also contains a number of archival images, including contemporary maps of the cities where Poe lived. I would hope that a browsing reader would first just flip through the book and look at some of those photographs, which are an important feature of the project, along with the maps and other archival items. A few of Michelle’s photographs are “blended” with archival images to create a sort of then-and-now effect, which I really like. Archival photograph of the building that housed the Southern Literary Messenger, Poe’s workplace in Richmond from 1835 to early 1837, blended with a contemporary photograph of the same corner by Michelle Van Parys. Archival photograph courtesy of the Valentine, Richmond, VA.

But in terms of the text, I think the beginning of Chapter Three, which covers Poe’s years in Philadelphia, is a good sample of what the book is like. The first pages are about life in Philadelphia in the years after the Panic of 1837, with some quotations from contemporary observers like Charles Dickens. I also discuss Poe’s motivation for moving there, and where he settled together with Virginia and Maria Clemm. They found a house near Rittenhouse Square, a part of town that was only sparsely developed at the time. And of course, that’s why Poe could afford to live in that area—it hadn’t become fashionable yet.

This part of the chapter moves along quickly, as Poe lands a job at Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and I’m then able to describe some of the people he got to know in connection with that job as well as the significance of magazines in American life in the mid-nineteenth century. About ten pages into the chapter, I discuss some of the satires Poe wrote in the late 1830s: “How to Write a Blackwood Article”, “Peter Pendulum, the Business-Man”, and “The Man That Was Used Up”; some lesser-known stories that I think reflect his skepticism toward the world of business and politics that he was becoming acquainted with in Philadelphia.



Glenn E. Robinson


On his book Global Jihad: A History

Cover Interview of May 05, 2021

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A “just browsing” reader would be well-served by reading the very short, 3-page Preface to get a better sense of what the whole book is about. Indeed, the scope of the book is laid out in the first one and a half pages! That same browser could then usefully skip to the back of the book and read the short, 4-page Epilogue entitled “Who Won?” to better understand the exaggerated impact global jihad has had on America, especially since 9/11. America was so devastated by 9/11—and understandably so—that it adopted policies at home and abroad that represented both a vast exaggeration of the nature of the threat, and an essential misunderstanding of the dynamics of global jihad. Hopefully, this book will act as a corrective to both these shortcomings.

But the whole book is accessibly written and under 200 pages of text, so the browser would be well-served to read the whole book!



Richard Toye


On his book Winston Churchill: A Life in the News

Cover Interview of April 28, 2021

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I have to say the first pages in the book should be read first because I deliberately wrote them in order to draw the reader in. They tell of an episode in 1929 when Churchill accused the Daily Herald, a left-wing paper, of faking a photo in order to discredit him. This turned out not to be true. It’s an interesting story with obvious relevance to today’s discourse of “fake news”. It also illustrates Churchill’s habit of flying off the handle, sometimes without knowledge of all the facts, which is a central theme of the book.

I would also point readers to the passage dealing with 10 May 1940, the day Churchill became prime minister. Although the events behind the scenes have been covered in great detail by historians, nobody had previously traced what the public knew about the day’s unfolding events and when.

On the morning of the day in question, the Daily Express carried a report that Chamberlain would stand down—Labour being unwilling to serve under him in a reconstructed government—and that Churchill would likely be the new Prime Minister. By the time that the paper hit readers’ breakfast tables, though, they might already have heard the 7am BBC news, in which it was reported that the Germans had invaded Holland, and that there had been “air activity in the Thames Estuary”. An hour later, it was known that Belgium had been attacked too. In the light of the news of the German actions, Chamberlain briefly determined to hang on, but quickly bowed to the inevitable. At 6pm listeners were told that the British War Cabinet had met three times and that “the French Council of minister is in session at this moment”. At three minutes to six, Chamberlain arrived at Buckingham Palace. Just over half an hour later, he emerged, to be followed in at once by Churchill. It was now clear to journalists that the change had been made; but the public did not yet know. At 9pm Chamberlain himself made a broadcast, in which he announced his replacement by Churchill. The American news agency United Press quickly reported that “The change of government was being accomplished in record-breaking speed for the ordinarily slow and traditionally form-bound British parliamentary system. Only this morning it generally was believed that despite the unleashing of the German attack on the low countries and the imminent threat to the British Isles that it would be 10 days or a fortnight before a new government might be formed”.



David Sulzer


On his book Music, Math, and Mind: The Physics and Neuroscience of Music

Cover Interview of April 21, 2021

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Perhaps the best way for a reader to begin is to peruse the questions that start each chapter and find ones that are of interest to them. The answers can be complicated—indeed some have been addressed throughout history—but no one should be intimidated. With some patience, the explanations are understandable by virtually anyone.

Here is an example: most readers have heard of “brainwaves”, but likely have no idea of what this term really means. In the chapter on brainwaves, we build on the previous chapter on rhythm in music, where we drew the conclusion that syncopation requires more than one “clock” of beats at a time, so we must have a means by which we can hold multiple clocks at once.

To understand how this is accomplished, we relate how the cells of the brain communicate with each other through “synapses”. To do this, they modulate each other’s electrical currents, and we describe how the cells of the brain, the neurons, act as batteries. But what is a battery? To understand that, we need to comprehend what voltage and current mean. We derive this using nothing more than multiplication and division by discussing how a bathtub fills with water from a water tower. (This last effort took me about two solid days to figure out for myself. But I explain it in two pages.)

From there we go through the history of the debate about whether animals produce electricity, which was partly settled by a study of the electric fish in the 1700s and later by experiments by Luigi Galvani, in which he stimulated a frog leg with electricity from lightning—a scientific paper published in 1791 that led to Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein.

From there, we discuss how a German doctor in 1929 recorded brain waves in humans by embedding recording electrodes under the scalps of his own children and discovered the alpha wave when he asked them to perform hard math problems, like dividing 196 by 7, in their heads.

We then discuss the nervous system rhythm with which we are most familiar, our heartbeat, and how the electrical currents that control the heartbeat are due to “channels” in the membrane that allow charged ions of sodium, potassium, and calcium to move back and forth inside and out from the cells. That allows us to move on to how the much faster rhythms in the central nervous system are activated by the same sorts of mechanisms. Finally, we get to how the connections between these different neurons can lead to the production of rhythms in the brain, while acknowledging gaps in present knowledge on these questions.

For listening material, we discuss the unnaturally rapid rhythms in electronic styles made on a laptop computer, Gene Wilder and Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein, and the use of brainwaves to trigger music including my own record, The Brainwave Music Project, in which the computer musician Brad Garton and I enable jazz and classical performers to perform live duets with their own brain activity. In order to disturb one’s own expectations and drive interruptions that cause a cortical phenomenon known as “auditory evoked potentials” I advise readers to listen to anything by Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Really, anything by them.



Kiran K. Patel


On his book Project Europe: A History

Cover Interview of April 14, 2021

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By studying the history of the European Union, the book argues that the current crises are not as unique as we might think. Even Brexit is not as singular and unique as often thought. In fact, Algeria left the EC in 1962, Greenland in 1985. Long before the 2016 referendum in the United Kingdom and Brexit that followed in 2020, European integration turned out to be a potentially reversible process, despite the talk about an ‘ever closer union.’

Admittedly, Greenland and Algeria had not joined the EC as sovereign states, but within the context of European colonialism. Their conditions differed significantly from Brexit or the occasionally discussed Grexit. Still, the processes in which they left the EC holds important lessons for today.

Both cases reveal that leaving the EC or the EU was never easy and that the search for national sovereignty often turned out to be disappointing. Algeria moved from a super-soft to a super-hard and from there to a softer constellation again. For several years in the 1960s, it retained a precarious special status, almost as if it was still part of the EC. Then, its privileged position crumbled, and European protectionism created insurmountable trade barriers with massive negative consequences for Algeria’s economy. From a low point in the 1970s, EU-Algeria relations slowly improved again. In contrast, Greenland’s exit was consistently soft and since then, relations have intensified further. The experience of Algeria and Greenland demonstrates that a new settlement will only be the basis for the next phase, and not the once-and-for-all, clear-cut solution that the exit camp likes to imagine.

Secondly, examining instances of withdrawal from the EU conveys an important message concerning the history of the European Union. Disintegration has always been part of the EU’s political normality; Brexit is not a fundamentally new challenge though many have thought and said that over the past years. Brexit only challenges the standard story about European integration with its logic of ‘ever closer union’, which is a powerful narrative the EU itself has forged and helped to disseminate.



Douglas B. Downey


On his book How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong

Cover Interview of April 07, 2021

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If you believe that widely unequal schools are responsible for achievement gaps, open my book to page 17 and look at Figure 2.1. That figure shows that high-SES children are ahead of low-SES children in reading skills by .64 standard deviations at kindergarten entry. At this age, we are really measuring mostly pre-reading skills, like knowing letters and the sounds they make, and recognizing a few simple words and short sentences. The standard deviation is a useful way to gauge the gap between two groups because it allows us to assess the magnitude of that gap, even when the kinds of reading skills assessed are different at later ages. If schools increase inequality, we should observe a growing gap (as measured by standard deviations) over time. Over the next nine years, however, this gap does not increase in the way it should if schools are the culprit. Instead, it declines to .55 standard deviations by the end of the eighth grade. The math results, Figure 2.3 on p. 19 in the book, show the same pattern.

If these patterns were unique to the ECLS-K:1998 data, we might be able to dismiss them, but the overall pattern replicates in a wide range of nationally representative datasets. It is really hard to develop a story about schools that is both consistent with this pattern and defines them as a source of achievement gaps. Instead, the patterns suggest that children arrive at kindergarten on highly unequal learning trajectories. Once in school, however, achievement gaps largely stop growing and even begin to narrow somewhat—the very opposite of what we would observe if schools were a source of achievement gaps.