Articles from the Institute Letter

Additional articles from new and past issues of the Institute Letter will continue to be posted over time and as they become available.

Doubts Arise Over Claims of Evidence for Cosmic Inflation

In September, Planck researchers confirmed Member Raphael Flauger’s assertion that the level of galaxy dust in this Planck slide was underestimated by the BICEP team.
In September, Planck researchers confirmed Member Raphael Flauger’s assertion that the level of galaxy dust in this Planck slide was underestimated by the BICEP team.

“Space Ripples Reveal Big Bang’s Smoking Gun,” read the New York Times headline last March 17. In a seemingly momentous news conference at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, researchers using a BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) telescope at the South Pole announced that they had detected the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation, a theory about the very beginnings of the universe first proposed in 1979. 

The BICEP announcement claimed that the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in spacetime, had been detected, a tantalizing and long hoped-for connection between quantum mechanics and general relativity. The landmark claim ignited the field and led to talk of a new era of cosmology.

At the Institute for Advanced Study, Raphael Flauger, Member (2013–14) in the School of Natural Sciences, began looking closely at the data. The year prior, Flauger had analyzed the first round of cosmic microwave background data released by the Planck satellite, a mission of the European Space Agency, which the BICEP team had used in its findings. 

READ MORE>

By Sverker Sörlin

Will It Become Decisive Enough?

What do the humanities have to do with the environment? As they are commonly understood, environmental problems are issues that manifest themselves primarily in the environment itself. Natural scientists research these problems and suggest solutions, aided by technology, economics, and policy. It was scientists who defined the modern usage of the concept of “the environment” after World War II. Ecologist William Vogt famously used it in his 1948 volume The Road to Survival: “We live in one world in an ecological—an environmental—sense.” He and others at the time thought of “the environment” as a composite of issues that had been in the making for some time—most prominently, population growth, which had been much discussed since the World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927, but also soil erosion, desertification (observed by Paul Sears in his famous 1935 book Deserts on the March), pollution, food, poverty, and starvation.

READ MORE>

By Lucy Colwell

How do proteins self-assemble into functional molecules?

Proteins are typically cited as the molecules that enable life; the word protein stems from the Greek proteois meaning “primary,” “in the lead,” or “standing in front.” Living systems are made up of a vast array of different proteins. There are around 50,000 different proteins encoded in the human genome, and in a single cell there may be as many as 20,000,000 copies of a single protein.1

Each protein provides a fas­cinating example of a self-organ­izing system. The molecule is assembled as a chain of amino acid building blocks, which are bonded together by peptide bonds to form a linear polymer. Once synthesized, this polymer spontaneously self-assembles into the correct and highly ordered three-dimensional structure required for function. This ability to self-assemble is remarkable—each linear polypeptide chain is highly disorganized, and has the potential to adopt an array of conformations so vast that we cannot enumerate them, yet within less than a second a typical protein spontaneously assumes the correct, highly ordered three-dimensional structure required for function. The identity and order of the amino acids that make up this polypeptide, that is the protein sequence, typically contain all the information necessary to specify the folded functional molecule.2

READ MORE>

By Nicola Di Cosmo

Did an unusually favorable climate create conditions for a new political order under Chinggis Khan?

In his recent book Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catas­trophe in the Seventeenth Century, Geoffrey Parker states: “although climate change can and does produce human catastrophe, few historians include the weather in their analyses.” This is generally true, and the distance between historians and the weather may not have improved (indeed, may have been underscored) by the evolution of environmental history as a separate branch of historical research. Moreover, while the collection of historical climate data has never been more robust, instances of collaboration between scientists and historians are still very few and far between. In 2006, the National Science Foundation launched a program for research on Coupled Natural and Human Systems, capturing the need to model the interaction between societies and environments. Few of the projects funded so far, however, involve a long-term historical perspective or engage actual historical questions. One of these, funded last year, is titled “Pluvials, Droughts, Energetics, and the Mongol Empire” and is led by Neil Pederson, Amy Hessl, Nachin Baatarbileg, Kevin Anchukaitis, and myself.

READ MORE>

By John Padgett

Do actors make relations or do relations make actors?

The encounter of historical and evolutionary perspectives within the intermediate trading zone of social science often has been unsatisfactory. Biological metaphors of social evolution were common among the original founders of the social sciences—in sociology and anthropology especially—but collectivist functionalism1 now is thoroughly discredited. Horrific misuses of biological and evolutionary “scientific theories” by nineteenth- and twentieth-century racist social movements need no recounting. More recently, sociobiology—the analysis of discrete social behaviors and cultural “memes” as if these were genes in evolutionary competition—has gained an enthusiastic following as a sect, but sociobiology is viewed as simplistic and naive by most contemporary social scientists. 

Less well known among social scientists, the reverse reception of historicist arguments in evolutionary biology also has been rocky. Stephen Jay Gould is widely known and praised outside of his own subfield, but his arguments are held at arm’s length if not in disdain by his evolutionist peers. Celebrating “historical contingencies” to them seems tantamount to giving up on scientific explanation altogether. Postmodernists in the social sciences and the humanities are willing to take that step, but contemporary evolutionary biologists (including the late Gould himself) have nightmares of creationists and intelligent designers exploiting indeterminacy in evolutionary theory for their own purposes.

READ MORE>

Pages