Features

From art imaging to zapping ­cancer ... The year in ideas: A to Z

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the July 7, 2010, issue


Finding interesting ideas at Princeton is like finding sand on a beach. And so PAW closes the 2009–10 academic year — and its publishing cycle — with a tiny ­shovelful: 26 nuggets (one for each ­letter of the alphabet) that offer a glimpse of the many faculty and student ideas on campus this year. Some could be life-changing, ­others ­useful, others simply fun (check out our entry under “U”).

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.

ART AND THE BRAIN

D. Graham Burnett ’93, a professor of history, has used a “New Directions” grant from the Mellon Founda­tion to do research in the emerging field of neuroaesthetics — the science of how the brain processes sensory information it receives from art and music.  

In one set of experiments, conducted with a neuroscientist and postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s medical school, subjects are blindfolded, given a small, irregularly shaped object, and asked to describe it based only on their sense of touch. MRI scans record which parts of the subject’s brain are activated in this process. The blindfold then is removed, and the MRI measures how the brain reacts when the subject sees the object. Does the brain process visual information differently than tactile information? Does it draw upon information learned through touch to help it understand an object that can now be seen?

Burnett also hopes to conduct experiments measuring eye movement as a subject observes a work
of art. By studying how the brain engages different types of visual stimuli — If shown a picture of a crowd scene, what grabs the eye first? How does the brain move around the image? — Burnett could help shape our understanding of how art “works” and why we respond to one painting differently than another.

BIAS

It’s common for people to think that we act for the most honorable of motives — but that others are hopelessly biased. And once we have decided that the other side is biased, compromise and negotiation become more difficult, leading to an endless cycle of tit-for-tat reprisals. Examples are everywhere, from the Arab-Israeli conflict to Republi­cans and Democrats during the health-care debate. Bias almost always becomes self-serving: Not only should I win because winning helps me, but because you need to be stopped.

Emily Pronin, an associate professor of psychology, explores bias in depth in two soon-to-be-published book chapters. In “Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict,” written with Kathleen Kennedy, a psychology graduate student, Pronin posits that the perception that an adversary is biased can initiate a conflict spiral and prevent its resolution, as the adversary perceives that bias and reciprocates it. In “Claims and Denials of Bias and their Implications for Policy,” written with her former research assistant, Kathleen Schmidt, Pronin writes that while people tend to underestimate their own biases, they overestimate the biases of others, particularly when the other person belongs to a less favored group. This occurs, she writes, because we tend to focus on our own private motives, rather than our actions, while judging others by their actions rather than their motives.

Bias serves useful pur­poses, Pronin believes, by supporting a sense of self-esteem and making it easier to reach decisions quickly. But it also can become a trap. One is often likely to be better off by recognizing that he or she does not have all the answers — possessing a quality known in a more poetic form as humility.

CARBON SEQUESTRATION

If, as most scientists believe, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is the driving cause of global warming, one solution to the problem could be taking those gases and pumping them into layers of sedimentary rock deep in the earth. Although it is an attractive idea, it has not yet been widely adopted because of cost and concerns about what would happen if the trapped gases escaped.  

Catherine Peters, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and collaborators from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have received a $750,000 grant from the National Science Founda­tion to determine what would happen if sequestered CO2 were to leak back into the atmosphere. They have designed a laboratory to simulate a storage area more than 4,000 feet below the surface in the abandoned Homestake gold mine in South Dakota, where they are studying whether the gas escapes and, if it does, how and where. If sequestration proves practical, greenhouse gases could be pumped directly from power plants into the ground, Peters says, or transported to sites in other parts of the country by pipeline.

DECLARATIONS

In the spirit of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg, a group of prominent Christian intellectuals, including Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, have issued a declaration of faith in a changing world. The statement, titled “Manhattan Declaration:
A Call of Christian Con­science,” was drafted by George, along with Timothy George of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and Charles Colson, the former White House aide and founder of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview in Lansdowne, Va.

The signatories unambiguously oppose abortion, gay marriage, “unilateral” divorce, and physician-assisted suicide — which they characterize as part of a “culture of death” first advanced in the 1920s by “intellectuals in the elite salons of America and Europe.” Hate the sin but love the sinner is part of their philosophy, as the signatories say that they “stand by” those promoting homosexual and polyamor­ous relationships, “even when they falter.” According to the Manhattan Declara­tion Web site (http://manhattandeclaration.org), more than 453,000 people had signed by early June.

ENVIRONMENTAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Recycling glass can be expensive because much of it must be presorted by color. Jacob Hiller ’10 has devised a business plan to act as a middleman between recyclers and wineries by collecting used wine bottles, sterilizing and sorting them, and then selling them to eco-friendly vineyards. Hiller’s plan for ReVino Reclaimed Wine Bottles won third prize in the TigerLaunch 2010 competition sponsored by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club and second prize in the green business-plan competition sponsored by the Class of 1976.

Hiller says he got his idea after taking a course on environmental entrepreneurship taught by Gregory van der Vink, a visiting lecturer in the Department of Geosciences. Although ReVino is still in the planning stages, Hiller hopes to be able to open a sterilizing plant in the Portland area because of its proximity to the many vineyards in Oregon and Washington.


FARAWAY PLANETS

Astronomers long have suspected that there are planets orbiting stars in other galaxies, including planets that conceivably could harbor life. Such planets have been impossible to see, even with the most powerful telescopes, because they are too faint, too distant, and too often lost in the glare from the stars around which they orbit.

Last year, however, a team of researchers including Michael McElwain, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Astro­physical Sciences, observed what may be such a planet, known unpoetically as
GJ 758 B, located in the constellation Lyra, roughly 300 trillion miles away.

GJ 758 B, which also could be the remnants of a collapsed star known as a “brown dwarf,” was observed through the Subaru Tele­scope, located at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. McElwain estimates that the planetlike object is huge by the standards of our solar system, perhaps 10 to 40 times as large as Jupiter, and orbits its star about once every 165 years, about as often as Neptune circles the Sun. Its surface temperature is estimated to be about 600 degrees Kelvin (about 607 degrees Fahrenheit) — relatively cool by galactic standards. Although GJ 758 B is too massive (and hence would have crushing gravity) and too hot to support life as we know it, life could exist on one of the planet’s moons, if it has any.  

GLOBAL WARMING

During the last period of significant global warming, approximately 125,000 years ago, global sea levels were much higher and ice sheets smaller than previously believed, according to a statistical model devised by four Princeton researchers and a Harvard colleague that was published in Nature in December 2009. The model, based on data from 42 locations around the world, suggests that ­during that period of warming, known as the “last ­interglacial,” the Green­land and Antarctic ice sheets were substantially smaller than their present size. Surface temperatures were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than they are today. The researchers calculated that there was a 95 percent ­likelihood that global sea levels during the last interglacial were more than 6.6 meters higher than they are today, and a 67 ­percent ­likelihood that they were more than 8 meters higher. This suggests that ice sheets are much more ­vulnerable even to relatively low levels of sustained ­global warming, says Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and Inter­national Affairs. Oppen­heimer’s Princeton co-authors were Robert Kopp, a postdoctoral research ­associate at the Woodrow Wilson School; and Frederik Simons and Adam Maloof, both assistant professors of geosciences. Jerry Mitrovica of Harvard also co-wrote the article.

 
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