New Book edited by Karl van Bibber: The Atom of the Universe: The Life and Work of Georges Lemaitre

51LaqGVcIoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Congratulations to Senior Fellow Karl van Bibber on the appearance of The Atom of the Universe: The Life and Work of Georges Lemaitre.

Description from Copernicus Center Press:

This biography takes readers from the early childhood to the last days of Georges Lemaitre, the man behind the theory of the primeval atom, now better known as the Big Bang theory. But, who was Georges Lemaitre? He was a clergyman, a genius astronomer, an audacious cosmologist, a computer enthusiast ahead of his time, a professor with his head in the clouds, a bon vivant mathematician, and a gourmand. The book peels away these layers, chapter by chapter, from the adventures of a boy from Charleroi (Belgium), who became Monseigneur Lemaitre and influenced contemporary cosmology. The Atom of the Universe follows Lemaitre’s works through the course of his life, discovering along the way his involvement with the Chinese student community, his complex relationship with the Vatican, his deep devotion to the University of Louvain, his friendship with figures such as Einstein and Eddington, his adventures through both World Wars, his travels in America, his curious interest in Moliere, and his deep faith lived through the ‘Amis de Jesus.’ The resulting picture is of a remarkable figure who was sensitive, creative, meticulous, and, paradoxically, both discreet and exuberant, while also being a man of exceptional integrity who reconciled his science with his faith. More than a book on one person, this biography of Georges Lemaitre offers the key to a better understanding of the profound changes which took place in the fields of science, faith, and academic life in the last century.

New Book by Steven Justice: Adam Usk’s Secret


Congratulations to Senior Fellow and President Steven Justice on the appearance of his new book, Adam Usk’s Secret, from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Adam Usk, a fifteenth-century academic, royal advisor, schismatic, and spy, wrote a peculiar book in a reticent, nervous prose better suited to keeping secrets than setting them in writing. Justice sets out to find what Usk wanted to hide and comes to surprising conclusions about the foundations of literary and historical study.

Description from the University of Pennsylvania Press:

Adam Usk, a Welsh lawyer in England and Rome during the first years of the fifteenth century, lived a peculiar life. He was, by turns, a professor, a royal advisor, a traitor, a schismatic, and a spy. He cultivated and then sabotaged figures of great influence, switching allegiances between kings, upstarts, and popes at an astonishing pace. Usk also wrote a peculiar book: a chronicle of his own times, composed in a strangely anxious and secretive voice that seems better designed to withhold vital facts than to recount them. His bold starts tumble into anticlimax; he interrupts what he starts to tell and omits what he might have told. Yet the kind of secrets a political man might find safer to keep—the schemes and violence of regime change—Usk tells openly.

Steven Justice sets out to find what it was that Adam Usk wanted to hide. His search takes surprising turns through acts of political violence, persecution, censorship, and, ultimately, literary history. Adam Usk’s narrow, eccentric literary genius calls into question some of the most casual and confident assumptions of literary criticism and historiography, making stale rhetorical habits seem new. Adam Usk’s Secret concludes with a sharp challenge to historians over what they think they can know about literature—and to literary scholars over what they think they can know about history.

[Highlight] Lara Buchak’s Risk and Rationality

Congratulations to Sr. Fellow Lara Buchak on the release of her new book, Risk and Rationality!

From the publishers:

Lara Buchak sets out an original account of the principles that govern rational decision-making in the face of risk. A distinctive feature of these decisions is that individuals are forced to consider how their choices will turn out under various circumstances, and decide how to trade off the possibility that a choice will turn out well against the possibility that it will turn out poorly. The orthodox view is that there is only one acceptable way to do this: rational individuals must maximize expected utility. Buchak’s contention, however, is that the orthodox theory (expected utility theory) dictates an overly narrow way in which considerations about risk can play a role in an individual’s choices. Combining research from economics and philosophy, she argues for an alternative, more permissive, theory of decision-making: one that allows individuals to pay special attention to the worst-case or best-case scenario (among other ‘global features’ of gambles). This theory, risk-weighted expected utility theory, better captures the preferences of actual decision-makers. Furthermore, it isolates the distinct roles that beliefs, desires, and risk-attitudes play in decision-making. Finally, contra the orthodox view, Buchak argues that decision-makers whose preferences can be captured by risk-weighted expected utility theory are rational. Thus, Risk and Rationality is in many ways a vindication of the ordinary decision-maker–particularly his or her attitude towards risk–from the point of view of even ideal rationality.

Risk and Rationality is now available from Oxford University Press or on Amazon.

[In Review] R. O. P. Lopez’s Colorful Conservative

A friend drew to our attention a book published last year: The Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman, by R. O. P. López. Professor Justice comments:

I’m grateful that I got to read this serious and challenging book, which presents a core of strong, persuasive critical discussions of earlier American literature wrapped in layers of provocative, deeply felt polemic. At its heart there are chapters on Wheatley, Poe, Thoreau, Whitman, and William Wells Brown. American literature is not my field, and so I can’t say how López’s readings fit into it. But they are stirring readings, compellingly argued but also compellingly imagined: the authors that emerge look quite unlike their anthology portraits. Thoreau gains from the Iliad an experience of intensity and the imperative of mastering it; and the civil disobedience he practiced and advanced celebrates not impulse but discipline. The Aeneid is for Whitman first the occasion of a glib and spurious superiority, then a challenge he cannot shake; but then he goes beyond both Virgil’s poetry and his own, finding in the nursing of the wounded soldiers and the verse that emerges from it an understanding of a fully engaged comradeship that includes all the registers of erotic, amiable, idealistic, and democratic aspiration.

Outside this core of the book is an argument about how to understand the relations through time of readers to authors and authors to predecessors. A judicious chapter takes us through theorists of literary-historical relation (Eliot, Bloom, Foucault, Henry Louis Gates). Moving through this progression, almost a century’s worth, we find the historical aspect of the historical relation treated with increasing depth and justness, but the relational aspect of it growing impoverished. To these he adds his own model, conversation. It’s a deliberately modest term he chooses, and its implication is immediately evident: thinking of conversation with a tradition lets you imagine both listening to it, even being changed by it, and talking back to it. He is able to cite Anzaldúa and Bhabha as models of borderland, but one that borders on different times. In this evocative model, a conversation is somewhere you can go to be changed.

And to be pulled from what is easy, obvious, narrow in the moment. For the outer layer of this book is, as its title suggests, an argument about, and for, a style of conservatism he calls colorful; not “conservativism of color,” as if his were some exotic species, but a thing broader in some directions and more specific in others. “Colorful” conservatives are those who value tradition as a specific against convention, those who appeal to the “other customs” of “other times” in order to get some distance on, some freedom from and power over, oppressively right-thinking and non-thinking attitudes of their own moment. He contrasts these with liberals of most stripes on the one hand, who value convention as a specific against tradition, and Burkean conservatives, who value tradition as a sort of long-term convention. His critiques of both these energies are trenchant, though there is something more Burkean than he would care to admit in his own model; for, like Burke, López seems to offer few substantive grounds for the value (the liberating value in his case) of particular traditions.

López’s argument about the politics of academic literary studies is original. It is also deliberately provoking, beginning with an unapologetic screed that quotes those conservative journalists most notorious among and most obnoxious to the academic world of which he is himself part—Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh. It is clearly meant to stagger readers, and it staggered me a bit. I can’t say I like it, but I take the implicit point: when a professor at a major research university suggested a perfectly middlebrow MSNBC commentator might make a good university president, the reaction was polite; had he suggested a Fox News commentator, it would have been contemptuous. At the other pole of the book, the final chapter concludes with an unapologetically admiring and unconventional reading of Brokeback Mountain, which seems designed to get on the nerves of those who love the movie and those who hate it. It’s a fight in which I have no dog, but I thought the reading superb.

Here’s the thing. Political and cultural discussion in the humanities, and still more the shared attitudes that underlie them, are generally monotone, thoughtless, and banal. When conservatives complain about that, they are right. But when they complain that the research and thinking done within its disciplines is just a con, a self-rewarding game, a fog of empty jargon, they are wrong. The problem is that too few of them have been willing to engage intelligently with poststructuralism, ethnic literary studies, queer studies, and to sort out what is valuable and rational in them from what is not. López has had the wit and courage to do just that. We could use more of it.

[In Review] For Michael Sandel, Money Does More than Talk

Michael Sandel makes a connection between “market triumphalism” and “moral vacancy,” in an interview about his new book, What Money Can’t Buy. According to Sandel, economics has cast itself as a value-neutral science, and in trying to maximize value without judging values, we have let economics decide the value of too many things — our bodies, human dignity, teaching and learning. Market-determined evaluation inhibits human flourishing.

Sandel has a point: value-neutral assessment is impossible in the human sciences, since value is what assessment assesses. But this tussle over precedence — the political philosopher telling economists that they need more political philosophy — seems a curious way of showing it. It invites unwelcome counter-punching (an economist might suggest that Sandel could use a clearer grasp of economics); and it invites piling on (Molecular and Cell Biology might urge that it has more to say about “our bodies” than the political philosopher; the Education School might challenge the Government Department professor’s turf-claim on “teaching and learning”). More than these, it misses the chance to explore with economists how their disciplinary rationality implies and includes and can acknowledge the range of values humans acknowledge. Explorations like that can be a slow business, and perhaps do not bring Harvard video podcasts. But they serve the common dignity of thinking, and have a chance to serve the common good.