May 24, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 17

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Past Opine interviews:
Lauren Berlant
Stephen Berry
John Boyer
David Cohen
Jerry Coyne
John Cunningham
Richard Epstein
John Frederick
Henry Frisch
Austan Goolsbee
Bernard Harcourt
Greg Jackson
Martin Marty
Martha Nussbaum
Raymond Pierrehumbert
José Quintáns
Jan-Marino Ramirez
Saskia Sassen
William Sewell
Herman Sinaiko
Geoffrey Stone
Cass Sunstein
Simon Swordy

    Opine: Stephen Berry

    Stephen Berry
    (Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

    This week, Stephen Berry, the James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry and the College, answers the Opine questions, which have been answered by other faculty members since October 2006, when Opine debuted.

    What book should every person read and why?

    Today, I’d recommend C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. It isn’t a timeless work like The Histories of Herodotus, for example, or Origin of the Species, which are books I might also have suggested, but it confronts one of the most frustrating shortcomings of our society, yet leaves open the sense that we might be able to deal with it. The reason I choose it is because I think science illiteracy threatens our democratic way of life in a variety of ways.

    If you could meet any scholar, author, composer, musician or entrepreneur—dead or alive—who would it be and why?

    Perhaps I’d pick James Franck, whom I might have met but never did. For years, every time I ventured into a new field and would look at its earliest literature, it seemed to me that the first person to think about each of those areas or problems was James Franck. He was, I understand, a deeply humane individual, besides being an amazingly imaginative scientist.

    Among the complex moral and political issues that affect humanity, which do you believe will never be resolved and why?

    I fear that the human species will be never be able, broadly, to accept the rational, science- and logic-based foundations of our experience that tell us about our place in the universe. I cannot see people giving up the “easy answers” that relieve them of responsibility and, at the same time, destroy the basis of the wonder and humility that come with a realization of what and where we are.

    If politicians had to pass an exam before they were allowed to serve in public office, what question would you add to the test?

    I’d make each one choose the issue on which she or he felt most strongly, and ask them to explain the position taken by their most intelligent, rational opponent on that issue. And I’d insist that the opponent agree that her or his position was correctly presented.

    If you could choose any three University professors and give them a one-year sabbatical together to solve a problem, develop a theory or make a discovery, who would they be and what task would you assign them?

    I could pick either a scientific problem or a societal problem here. For a scientific problem, I’ll pick one that I think really could be done and would be an important advance in an emerging field. I’d choose Karl Freed, Aaron Dinner and Tobin Sosnick, and set them to work figuring out how to model glycomes—sugars—theoretically and particularly to show how they and their glycoprotein relatives interact with other molecules. (There are several others who would also be superb, but you specified three.) It’s one of the keys to how biomolecules recognize one another in order for cells to function, and it seems almost on the threshold of being addressable. Stepping away from the specific scientific challenges, I would set David Currie, Richard Posner and Mark Siegler to work devising a way to structure the rules of our society that would provide effective disincentives strong enough to make people in positions of power or authority—business executives, professionals such as lawyers, doctors, scientists and clergy—want to behave ethically.

    Think of a renowned scholar from the past who added great value to your area of study. What would this person think of the advances that recently have been made in this field?

    J. Willard Gibbs, one of America’s greatest scientists, whose entire career was at Yale— virtually unrecognized in this country until after Europeans realized what great contributions he made to thermodynamics and statistical mechanics—would probably be thrilled to see quantum mechanics and how his work in the context of classical physics extends so simply and naturally to such fundamental concepts.

    What building on campus do you think is the most interesting architecturally and why?

    This is a difficult one because there are so many buildings I think are truly interesting. Today, I think I’ll pick Ida Noyes. It is beautifully designed to serve many functions superbly, and it’s always a delight to come in through its cloister from Woodlawn. On another day, I might pick Regenstein or the Mandel-Reynolds-Mitchell-Hutchinson complex.

    Will a liberal arts education remain relevant to students in our increasingly technological society? Why or why not?

    Relevant? That’s too weak a description. I’d say it is necessary for the preservation of our society. We must retain knowledge and understanding of how people have lived and thought to understand even a little of how to go on from now into the future. I don’t believe in history repeating, but I do believe that human characteristics change very slowly, if at all. (But I do accept Bob Fogel’s finding that we are healthier and stronger than our predecessors were!)

    How will the next generation of scholars—today’s students—change your field in the decades to come?

    They’re changing it already. What is meant by “solving a scientific problem” is different now from what it was even 25 years ago; now, a solution found by elaborate computation is as satisfactory as a closed analytic expression, for example. There will be less and less need to settle for very simple models because we are learning to put in more and more of the details. But perhaps the biggest change may be in the form of fundamental discoveries of ways to think about truly complex, dynamic and evolving systems.