In the News
The Chronicle’s biweekly column In the News offers a digest of commentary and quotations by a few of the University faculty members, students and alumni who have been headlining the news in recent weeks. Chicago faculty members are some of the most frequently quoted experts, so space allows publishing references to only selected examples. To read many of the full newspaper articles mentioned in this column, visit the In the News column at the University News Office Web site: http://www-news.uchicago.edu/.
Donald Lamb, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics and the College, was quoted in several stories about the Swift satellite that detected the most distant exploding star, which erupted just 500 million years after the creation of the universe. The explosion, known as a gamma-ray burst, was located 12.6 billion light years from Earth and shows that giant stars formed earlier than previously thought. In 1999, Lamb and former Chicago professor Daniel Reichart had predicted that massive stars would exist in this ancient region of the universe, even when other astronomers speculated it was too soon after the formation of stars for a massive star to grow and then self-destruct. Swift picked up the first evidence of an explosion lasting 200 seconds on Sunday, Sept. 4. “I’m so thrilled that Swift has made this possible, said Lamb. “It’s wonderful to have the premier scientific objective of the mission come to fruition less than a year after launch,” he said in a Los Angeles Times article. The Washington Post, Scientific American.com and the Chicago Sun-Times also published articles Tuesday, Sept. 13 on the gamma-ray burst that the Swift satellite documented. Lamb noted in the Sun-Times story that gamma-ray bursts are “capable of telling us the history of the early universe,”
Cass Sunstein, the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School and the College, wrote two op-eds, one that appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 1 issue of The Wall Street Journal and another in the Wednesday, Sept. 14 USA Today. In the Wall Street Journal piece, Sunstein described Judge John Roberts, nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, as a minimalist in his case decisions, noting that a prior decision of Roberts’ demonstrated “an unwillingness to speak broadly and a desire to proceed with careful attention to particular facts and arguments.” Sunstein wrote in the USA Today piece that between 1980 and 2005, the Supreme Court has gradually shifted to a more conservative ideology. “What makes this particular revolution so unusual, and so stunningly successful, is that we have barely noticed it.” Sunstein also was quoted in the Friday, Sept. 16 New York Times, the Monday, Sept. 12 issue of Time magazine and in a syndicated column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Sunstein’s commentary has covered a range of legal issues surrounding Roberts’ nomination, the history of the Court’s decisions and the now-open Chief Justice seat left vacant by William Rehnquist, who died Saturday, Sept. 3.
Research conducted by Bruce Lahn, Assistant Professor in Human Genetics and Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, was the subject of several news articles reporting on his latest findings: two genes—microcephalin and ASPM—which are involved in determining the size of the human brain have undergone substantial evolution in the last 60,000 years, suggesting the brain continues to rapidly evolve. As reported in the Friday, Sept. 9 New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, as well as in the Saturday, Sept. 10 issue of The Economist, the researchers studied the two genes in more than 1,000 people from 59 ethnic populations. Lahn and his team suggest that the new microcephalin gene may have arisen in Eurasia or as the first modern humans emigrated from Africa some 50,000 years ago. They note that the ASPM gene emerged about the same time as the spread of agriculture in the Middle East 10,000 years ago and the emergence of the civilizations of the Middle East some 5,000 years ago, but say that any connection is not yet clear. “It’s likely that different populations would have a different makeup of these genes, so it may all come out in the wash,” said Lahn.
The Financial Times’ Saturday, Sept. 10 issue featured the University’s Oriental Institute and the archaeological work it has done throughout the Middle East, specifically in Baghdad and the surrounding region. Interviewing McGuire Gibson, Professor in the Oriental Institute and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, the paper reported on the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad and other sites throughout the region that have been robbed of their artifacts. Gibson described the ravaged sites as “a tragedy of incredible proportions,” adding that the looters have secured only temporary income for selling what they stole. “The tragedy is that the people doing the digging are poor people who just need to make money. They’ll find a few things and sell them to the dealers. If they hadn’t done this, they would have had work for themselves and their children’s children. They have also killed the chance of tourism. The expeditions will probably never go back.”
The chimpanzee genome, which has been completed and shows that 96 percent of the genetic material in chimps matches that of humans, will prove valuable for its data that also shows the differences in the genetic material. The Chicago Tribune reported on Thursday, Sept. 1 that editors at the journal Nature asked the genetic evolutionist Wen-Hsiung Li, the George Beadle Professor in Ecology & Evolution, to write a commentary on the human and chimp genome work. “Because the genomes are huge—three billion base pairs of DNA—the differences in molecular terms are quite a lot. Most of them probably will not be biologically significant, but some may be crucial. Our task now is to identify those that are meaningful and prove it in the laboratory,” wrote Li.
The work of Michael Conzen, Professor and Chairman of the Committee on Geographical Studies and Professor in the College, who contributed 56 thematic maps to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, was the subject of a Chicago Tribune magazine piece published Sunday, Sept. 11. Conzen’s maps illuminated such things as religious diversity, ethnicity, economics and other concepts that change over time. “In the mercantile period, the population was small and lived along the river and [what is now] downtown,” said Conzen. “Then the city explodes in the 1920s, and an industrial pattern emerges due to railways. Today the city population is freeway-connected.”
Sam Peltzman, the Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professor of Economics in the Graduate School of Business, and James Schrager, Clinical Professor in Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management in the GSB, were interviewed for a Thursday, Sept. 15 Chicago Tribune story about the financial losses of commercial airlines as two more, Delta and Northwest, became the third and fourth to file for bankruptcy. “The whole industry needs to get smaller,” said Peltzman. “The problematic aspect is that the bankruptcy laws that are designed to facilitate that sometimes stretch things out.” The current condition of the industry has led to what most agree is the end of an era for the full-service so-called “legacy” carriers, the Chicago Tribune reported. “Right now, it’s the best of both worlds,” said Peltzman, “low fares and lots of flights. But that can’t last.”
Waldo Johnson, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, was quoted in a front-page Chicago Tribune article that appeared Friday, Sept. 2. The article described how members of an extended African- American family whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina traveled to Chicago to stay with relatives here. The families taking in those who were displaced had made similar trips, whether they had fled their native New Orleans from Jim Crow segregation or previous storms, such as Hurricane Betsy that threatened the city 40 years earlier. Johnson pointed out that a historic connection between families in the South and in Chicago still exists decades after the Great Migration. “When you think about this historically, starting as far south as New Orleans and going up the Mississippi River was the path of the migration. Chicago became the place where they settled,” he said. “There are people here who may have lived their entire adult lives in Chicago, but they feel this connection [to the South].”
Examining the Supreme Court’s voting record during the more than 30 years William Rehnquist served the Court, Geoffrey Stone, the Harry Kalven Jr. Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School and the College, concluded in a Tuesday, Sept. 6 Chicago Tribune op-ed that Rehnquist’s record shows he was less likely than other justices to hold a law in violation of the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech, or of the press.” Excluding 63 cases where unanimous votes decided an outcome, Stone found that in non-unanimous decisions the other justices were six times more likely than Rehnquist to find a law in violation of “the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Stone pointed out that Rehnquist showed interest in enforcing the constitutional guarantee of free expression in only three areas: cases involving advertising, religious expression and campaign finance regulation. “Not only was he the justice least likely to protect these freedoms, but his general passivity toward these freedoms cannot be defended as principled, coherent or neutral. When all was said and done, Rehnquist’s First Amendment belonged to corporations, wealthy political candidates and churches. In this, at least, he won’t be missed.”