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  Reported by
  John Easton, AM'77
  Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93
  Richard Mertens
  Sharla Stewart
  Mary Ruth Yoe

  Photography by
  Dan Dry

  Text-only
  version


  FEATURES
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Records of a Revolution
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Campus of the Big Ideas
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You Go Girl!


 


Chicago: Campus of the Big Ideas
>>
The launch of The Chicago Initiative-the University's five-year, $2 billion fund-raising effort-was marked by an April 12 event that focused on Chicago's intellectual initiatives.


1
In the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?

 

 

"All human beings are curious about how things began," said Michael Turner, the Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner distinguished service professor in astronomy & astrophysics and physics.

How did things really begin? Approaching that deceptively simple question, the panel brought together a cosmologist (Turner), a geneticist (David Ledbetter, the Marjorie I. and Bernard A. Mitchell professor and chair of human genetics), and a mythologist (Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor in the Divinity School and South Asian languages & civilizations).

With scrawled overheads, Turner explained how technological advances have revolutionized our understanding of the physical universe. Although we are made of "star stuff"-as the late Carl Sagan, AB'54, SB'55, SM'56, PhD'60, famously put it-star stuff is now known as "ordinary matter," making up just 4 percent of the universe. The rest is "exotic dark matter" (30 percent) and "dark energy" (66 percent).

For 21st-century cosmologists, dark energy is a main puzzle of the universe-which may actually be a "multiverse," with a six-dimensional or even ten-dimensional structure. Warned Turner: "Until we understand dark energy, we don't understand our destiny-and maybe we won't even then."

As the audience recovered from the revelation that our star stuff is ordinary, Ledbetter noted that, genetically speaking, we're mainly chimp: "We share 98 percent of the same genes. The human-chimp divide is mostly in our heads."

Even more humbling, the Human Genome Project (HGP) has shown that humans have an unexpectedly small number of genes. "There are only 30,000 to 40,000 genes in humans," Ledbetter said, "while a worm has 18,000, a fruit fly 13,000, and rice has 50,000." For HGP researchers, the small number is a pleasant surprise; but for biotechnology companies, "business plans were based on revenue per gene," Ledbetter explained, "so they were not too happy at the news."

"What sort of origins do we look for when we look for our origins?" asked Doniger, next at the podium. For religious scholars, part of this search is for the origin of the texts themselves-for "the Urtext."

Humility may be disconcertingly new in the sciences, but in the ancient Indian tradition, Doniger's specialty, it's not. The Rig Veda (1000 B.C.), one of the oldest creation myths, is "open-ended and vague," with lines like "There was neither nonexistence nor existence then" and "Who really knows?" That "charming humility" may appeal to today's audiences, Doniger said, but some Hindus were troubled enough to invent a god named 'Who,'" a semantic solution that "reminds me of the old Abbott and Costello routine."

Creation myths-including even the Big Bang-share an essential problem, she said: they never really explain how we get from nothing to something. "Myths fudge this. After the appearance of the original 'something,' myths have a system of baroque detail that's so complex, you get caught up in it." The Laws of Manu begin with "vague undifferentiated chaos," Doniger noted, that the creator organizes in very specific ways. "But," she persisted, like a child in Sunday school class, "where did the creator come from?"
-C.G.


1. In the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?

2. Homo sapiens: are we really rational creatures?

3. Integrating the physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?

4. Money, services, or laws: how do we improve lives?

5. Clones, genes, and stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?

6. How will technology change the way we work and live?

7. Why do we dig up the past?

8. Art for art's sake?

9. In the realm of the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?

10. Can we protect civil liberties in wartime?

CHICAGO INITIATIVE GOALS



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