Spring Flings

At the end of an earth science lecture last year, an undergraduate student leaned over and started asking me about my fellowship. She was curious how it was a middle-aged guy came to be in her science class. The more I told her, the more questions she had.

So you can take any classes you want?

Pretty much, I answered. So long as the professor approves. Of course, some courses aren’t appropriate — like labs where there is limited space.

And you don’t have to do any of the work?

I couldn’t tell if her question harbored jealousy or concern. Either way, that’s mostly right, I told her. Oh, I do the readings (usually), but not the problem sets or the papers or tests. Except in some rare cases.

And they pay you?

I felt a rush of embarrassment. Undoubtedly she was thinking of the gobs of money she and her parents were laying out and here was this guy who was getting paid and not doing any of the work!

I sheepishly nodded, then tried to pivot. We also have to do other things, like go to seminars and work on a research project, I said, perhaps more to assuage my guilt than to reassure her. Doubtful it did either.

That is so cool!

I couldn’t help but laugh. Yes, yes it is, I agreed. It is cool.

That conversation replayed itself in my head during winter break as I started to look for my next set of classes. These would be the last classes I would get to take, so I wanted to get them right. No screwing around. Cool or bust.

So, I surveyed the Harvard and MIT course catalogs and found no fewer than 50 classes that fit the bill, including some led by Cornell West, Jill Lepore, and Steven Pinker. But, once I filtered out courses geared toward helping graduate students with their dissertations, or those with incompatible schedules, or other reasons, I had a more reasonable menu of options. Ultimately, I started going to the seven courses below, and have since settled into three I attend each week.

One goal I set for the spring semester was to take a real hands-on class. I wanted to make something, or at least to use equipment. One option was MIT’s Furniture Making Workshop. I headed to the first class in a giant shop next to the fantastic MIT Museum. More than two dozen students filed into the shop. The professor, scanning the crowd, made it clear: “Not all of you are going to be allowed to take this class. Maybe half.”

I’d say I could read the writing between the lines, but the writing was actually in big, bold, underlined letters with an arrow pointing to me. Enjoy this hour, I thought, because it’s the last hour you’re going to spend in here.

The professor, Christopher Dewart, proceeded to lead a lecture on the history of chairs, which showed how the furniture piece has progressed from purely utilitarian function to — in some cases — purely aesthetic form, and then explained that students would be creating chairs of their own original designs. Hulking shop equipment from the middle of the 20th century rested near 21st-century CNC routers and laser cutters. The students in this class were going to have fun. But I would not be among them.

Oversubscription of courses turned out to be a common issue. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I was drawn to Cybersecurity: Technology, Policy, and Law, taught by Bruce Schneier, one of the world’s experts on the topic. As students piled into the classroom, Schneier kept pointing out the Fire Marshal’s room limit: 78. As seats ran out and students took to standing against the wall or sitting on the steps, Schneier counted the students and announced to the class: not all of you are going to be accepted. Not again.

Luckily, others self-selected out of the course and I got to stay. The early classes focused on terminology and technology: how encryption works, the differences between authentication, access, and identification, and cryptography. Bottom line: it’s hard, you have to trust somebody, and we’re probably screwed. We then moved into discussions about the Internet of Things and a world where everything is connected. Good news: it’s going to be amazing. Bad news: we’re all going to die. Case in point:

Another course I attended at the Kennedy School was Climate Change and the Media. Taught by Cris Russell, the class brought together a couple dozen students from around the world. It was interesting to hear various perspectives about how climate change is covered by different news organizations in different parts of the world. Not surprisingly, countries that produce more carbon and are perceived as less immediately threatened by climate change tend to have more skeptical and less urgent coverage. I wasn’t able to attend as many classes as I would have liked, due to activities unrelated to the fellowship, but one event I did attend was a chat with Michael Mann and Tom Toles. Mann, a well-known climate scientist from Penn State, and Toles, a Washington Post editorial cartoonist, collaborated on a book detailing many of the questions, issues and concerns related to climate change called “The Madhouse Effect.”

Another course on climate change that attracted my attention came out of MIT’s D-Lab, which was created about 15 years ago to connect classrooms to communities by developing solutions to real-world problems. So I was eager to check out Weather, Climate Change and Health taught by Susan Murcott. Right away she challenged the students — undergraduates and graduates from MIT, Harvard’s School of Public Health, and elsewhere — to develop project ideas and work to bring them to life. What sorts of ideas? Developing inexpensive water filters to remove lead; creating training programs to help poor areas embrace sanitation best practices; and bringing better toilets to poor regions in Africa. The class also takes part in activities beyond the classroom. Teresa Carr, another KSJ fellow, wrote about an outing the class made to build solar trailers to be sent to Puerto Rico.

Another climate change-related class that caught my eye was Energy Environment and Society. Taught by William San Martin Aedo, this class would focus on the role of water and culture in addressing issues of environmental degradation and climate change. An early class started discussing political philosophies and whether some are inherently more hostile or compatible with addressing vexing environmental and energy issues. It was fun to listen to these incredibly smart and thoughtful students — many of whom were freshmen — think deeply about the role of culture in addressing what are normally considered scientific enterprises. Like so much else about this coming generation, it gave me hope.

Speaking of hope, you have to have it to study nuclear engineering. That’s the message from R. Scott Kemp, who brilliantly teaches Nuclear Technology and Society. Kemp carefully crafts his lectures with clear narrative arcs and supports them with smart and meaningful presentations. The course starts with an overview of reactor types and how research and development of reactors for civilian nuclear power was stunted and overwhelmed by the U.S. Navy. (There’s a great NOVA documentary on this called “The Nuclear Option.”) Of course, that’s tied directly to the economics of nuclear power, which is directly related to public perception and public policy. So why do you need “hope” to study nuclear engineering? On the one hand, the U.S. is the world’s largest generator of nuclear technology, producing 33 percent of the world’s nuclear power. But that’s not the future. Under current economic and political conditions, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will be adding to the 99 currently operating power plants. Indeed, with only two plants currently under construction and 22 up for license renewal, one can expect fewer plants in the future. Unless something changes. Like what? A carbon tax, for starters. Many believe the importance of nuclear will only grow as society weans itself off fossil fuels. Even with an explosion in wind and solar power, nuclear would seem to be a critical part of a carbon-free energy future. At least, that’s what the students studying nuclear engineering hope.

Since I wasn’t able to get into the furniture-making class, I was still searching for one that gave me the hands-on experience I was seeking. Then I spotted Hands-On Astronomy. Well, duh. In the fall, I had considered taking a Harvard class on celestial navigation, but decided against it due to scheduling. Now was my chance to remake that decision. Taught by Amanda Bosh, the title was the promise. Although the course was grossly oversubscribed, Bosh split the class into two sections and promised to make it work. I was delighted.

Each class begins with a short lecture about the heavens: orbits, phases, magnitude, coordinates, the celestial equator, and more. Using H. A. Rey’s The Stars, we studied the constellations. Then we head to the roof. Being Boston, the night sky isn’t exactly dark. Nor clear. So far, most of the classes have coincided with cloudy, or at best, hazy skies. But one thing you can count on is the cold. Temperatures in the 20s and 30s are one thing, but standing around at night, with a breeze and makes downright arctic. So before we head up, we bundle up. Long underwear. Irish cable-knit wool sweater. Scarf. Knit hat. Thick gloves. It seems like a lot, but once you get out there, you appreciate the extra layers.

Our first outings were dedicated to the sketchbook. Perhaps this is self-evident, but drawing at night is tough. Plus, you need to sketch in the negative. That’s maybe not so hard when sketching the stars, but drawing the moon in negative (at night) is super challenging.

More fun (to me) is astrophotography, or taking photos of the night sky. I’ll delve more into that in a separate post.

So those were the classes of my spring semester.

BTW, the idea of getting paid to attend classes reminds me, in a roundabout sort of way, to one of my favorite lines/scenes from The Simpsons. “Hey, they’re are trying to learn for free!” “Get ’em!” “Use your phony guns as club!” “Run, children!” Enjoy:


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