GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine

APRIL 2003, Volume 95, Issue 4
Photography by Dan Dry
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Unexpected Expertise

We expect Chicago professors to be experts on something—but maybe not on some things. Like toilet queues, parking dibs, or the perfectibility of a wine drinker’s palate. Read and learn.

Riccardo Levi-Setti — Trilobites

He began “doing trilobites to escape from physics,” Riccardo Levi-Setti confesses, “but physics came back.” Professor emeritus of physics and former director of the University’s Enrico Fermi Institute, Levi-Setti is author of Trilobites (Chicago, 1975, 1993), often considered the book on the Paleozoic marine anthropods known as “butterflies of the sea.”

Like butterflies trilobites can be divided into a center and two side lobes (hence the name). They resemble modern insects in other ways as well. An optics expert whose development of a scanning ion microprobe (the UC–SIM) has transformed how researchers in fields from ceramics to cytogenetics look at micro particles, Levi-Setti has used scanning electron microscopy to examine the visual apparatus of trilobites, finding striking resemblances to the compound eyes of modern insects. “Trilobites,” he writes with professional tongue in cheek, “had solved a very elegant physical problem and apparently knew about Fermat’s principle, Abbé’s sine law, Snell’s laws of refraction and the optics of birefringent crystals.”

Born in Milan, Levi-Setti encountered his first trilobite shortly after he came to Chicago in 1956, in a quarry west of the city. He now has uncovered “thousands” of the fossils (while most are less than two inches long, some can reach two-and-a-half feet) but says that he collects for the experience: “I like the process of digging them out. It’s a kind of treasure hunt. You start with a chisel and blunt force.”

The delicacy of the fossil record means that blunt force quickly yields to painstaking preparation. Citing Michelangelo’s explanation of a sculpture—“I saw the angel in the marble, and I chiseled until I set it free!”—Levi-Setti says, “The true shape is really in the rock and you have to be careful not to break it.” Still, preparing specimens, which he does in a basement workshop, “is very relaxing for me. I think about papers that I have to write and write them in my mind.”

Normally March would find him trilobite hunting in Morocco, but this year war kept him home. A Holocaust survivor who was part of the Italian resistance movement, Levi-Setti finds solace in geologic time. “It’s nice to think of life,” he says, “when man was not around.”


Richard Epstein — Parking and Property

A hallowed tradition allows Chicago car owners who shovel out post-snowfall parking places to retain squatting rights—often staked out by tired-looking tables or chairs—until the streets are plowed or the white stuff melts. “Dibs in the snow” is a winter way of life to the city’s drivers, but to Richard A. Epstein it’s also an intellectual puzzle.

For Epstein, the James Parker Hall distinguished service professor in the Law School, dibs is all about property rights, “a long-term research interest of mine,” he wrote in an e-mail from snow-free Palo Alto, California, where he spent winter quarter as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. “Finding the optimal mix between private and common property covers an enormous range of issues.”

His analysis of dibs—part of a 2001 working paper, “The Allocation of the Commons: Parking and Stopping on the Commons”—weighs the system in pluses and minuses. Yes, dibs reduces available parking spaces, but it also rewards those who have put the effort into the job. Would the shovelers spend all that time if they only got to use the space just once? In this way dibs provides “a trade-off not dissimilar to that found in the patent and copyright law. The initial digger of the spot is given a limited monopoly for its use.” As with patents and copyrights, the question becomes, What ought that duration to be?

“This issue is really critical,” Epstein noted. “This past weekend I was at a conference on copyright, and the question of the commons lurks very large in intellectual property. Do we want to have shorter or longer protected terms? Do we allow for the patenting or copying of software? When do drugs fall into the commons?”

Although the theoretical issues posed by dibs drive Epstein’s research, the longtime Hyde Parker also cites local stimuli: “I was on the north campus planning group where parking was a bear; I saw the empty spots near Giordano’s when I went for pizza. And who could forget watching those chairs in parking spots in winter?”


Mary Anne Case — Toilet Inequities

How long do you think this will take?” Mary Anne Case asks the photographer. “I hate to take up the biggest, most accessible women’s restroom during exam week.” It’s a concern that fits the Law School professor’s ongoing, anecdotal research: the toilet survey.

The questionnaire asks patrons of restaurants, stadiums, and other public places to mark how many stalls and urinals are in the men’s room and how many stalls and urinals—if any—are in the ladies’ room. It asks what additional “services” each offers: mirror, vanity table, chair, fainting couch, attendant, baby-changing table, nursing or breast-pumping station. It asks the length of the line.

Lines for public bathrooms, one of the last supposed vestiges of “separate but equal,” regularly show the facilities are anything but. “What’s most often equalized is square footage,” Case says. But because urinals are smaller than stalls, “men are almost always offered more excreting opportunities than women,” which likely accounts for longer women’s lines—not women simply taking longer. And more of the space in women’s bathrooms, she notes, is filled with vanity tables, fainting couches, and baby stations.

The project—after several years she’s collected hundreds of surveys for a planned law-review article—was spurred by Case’s research into the history of constitutional arguments for equal protection of the sexes. Believing the law rarely should distinguish between males and females, she advocates “a model akin to the typical airline toilet,” providing ultimate privacy without segregation (though she’s learned that many women prefer a same-sex environment).

The survey also gives men and women “a sense for how the other half lives,” Case says. For instance, when she visited a New York children’s museum, a male companion saw a poster in the boys’ room asking, “Who can ‘go’ faster? It takes men about 45 seconds to urinate (pee). It takes women about 79 seconds to urinate. How do you compare to the average? Ready, Get Set, GO!” No such poster, Case confirmed, was in the girls’ room.


Roman Weil — Vintage Wine

Roman Weil selects one of three pinot noir–filled glasses. Pressing its base against the white tablecloth, the V. Duane Rath professor of accounting in the GSB moves the glass in quick, tiny circles, swishing the wine. He lifts the glass and dips his nose into it, deeply inhaling. He sips, then lightly slurps, swallows, and clicks his tongue. After a palate-cleansing drink of water, he does the same with the other two glasses.

Weil is repeating an experiment he published in the May 2001 statistical magazine Chance: two of the three glasses contain the same wine, a 1998 Oregon reserve rated excellent in Robert M. Parker Jr.’s Wine Advocate vintage guide, and one contains a 1995 nonreserve rated average. Tasters must decide which glasses hold the same wine and which is considered better. Weil guesses wrong, as do two of the three other diners at his Les Nomades table in downtown Chicago, including the Mobil four-star restaurant’s co-owner, Mary Beth Liccioni, whose “refined palate,” Weil says, makes her a connoisseur.

The 241 GSB students, alumni, and companions who tasted 593 wines for Weil’s Chance study also guessed poorly—only slightly better than random chance would predict. That’s because today’s winemakers produce “wine of such uniform high quality,” Weil says, that vintage charts have become useless.

Weil began studying wine in 1964 when, as a Carnegie Mellon graduate student, he invited an economics professor to Sunday dinner. Weil considered his bar well-stocked—scotch, bourbon, gin, rum, vermouth, Campari—but the professor asked for white wine. “I had no wine,” Weil says. “I had to give him some dry sherry. But I decided that if professors drink wine, I’d better learn about it.”

And learn he did. By the 1980s he held seminars on how not to be intimidated by wine. In the 1990s he cofounded the Oenonomy Society, a wine club of 14 economists who meet at an annual scholarly conference. He’s building a marine-treated plywood cellar for his 4,000-bottle stash, purchased primarily at auction from Christie’s in London and Chicago. “Life is too short,” Weil says, “to waste drinking cheap wine.”


Robert Grant Sunken Submarines

As he picks his way through the close quarters of the Museum of Science and Industry’s U-Boat 505 exhibit, Robert Grant quickly points out that he’s more interested in destroyed submarines than preserved ones.

In fact, the Carl Darling Buck professor emeritus of New Testament and early Christianity has spent the past 77 years attempting to correct the historical record of the places and events surrounding the sinkings of World War I German U-boats. He traces his research back to his ninth year, when his Aunt Eleanor gave him a copy of Lowell Thomas’s Raiders of the Deep.

“The lost U-boats seemed highly mysterious, especially when in the Evanston Public Library I compared Thomas’s accounts with those of others,” he says. “I started to correct my copy of Raiders confidently and in ink.” Those first historical corrections started Grant on a path that eventually led to two books: U-Boats Destroyed (1964) and U-Boat Intelligence (1969).

His latest book, U-Boat Hunters, which corrects the other two, is due this year from Periscope Publishing. Hunters is based on divers’ recent explorations of destroyed U-Boats off the British and Belgian coasts. And it’s remarkable how much history has gotten wrong. “If you claim you sank a U-boat, divers can go down and take a look,” Grant says. “In most cases there’s nothing—the boats got away.”

Grant likes to think that his work on U-boats and his scholarly work is “all the same thing: finding new materials.” In his former day job as a professor in the Divinity School, he published 47 books on early Christianity, on topics ranging from gnosticism to the Dead Sea Scrolls. His latest, Second-Century Christianity: A Collection of Fragments, will be published this spring by Westminster Press. Like Hunters, it corrects his previous work on the topic.

Quips Grant, “I’ll spend my retirement correcting myself.”


David Galenson Poetic Values

Labor economist David Galenson, in regulation jacket and tie, excitedly paraphrases a correspondence between Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. “Frost wrote to Eliot, ‘Your problem is that you speak 23 languages but you know nothing about the world.’ And Eliot’s response was, ‘Your problem is that you’re stupid.’”

The poets’ exchange reveals the dichotomy the economics professor has discovered after five years of studying the creative process. In all intellectual pursuits, Galenson posits, there are two models: experimental and conceptual innovators, or seekers and finders. Frost was a seeker; Eliot a finder—and no wonder they couldn’t see eye to eye. The T. S. Eliots of the world take giant leaps into the unknown, radicalizing their disciplines and creating individual masterpieces. Yet they do their best work at a young age, and it’s mostly downhill from there. The Robert Frosts, meanwhile, are “kind of fuzzy,” says Galenson, “going about their work with trial and error.” They experiment, improving with age.

Galenson, who’s spent his career studying the productivity of immigrants, slaves, and indentured servants, laid out this creativity framework in his book Painting outside the Lines (Harvard, 2001). He determined the “value” of artists (in this case, 20th-century painters) by the prices their works fetched at public auctions and how frequently they appeared in museum exhibitions and art-history texts. Then he charted the artists’ ages when they created the works with the highest values. Pablo Picasso’s early works earned the highest prices, so he falls in with Eliot as a finder. The values of Paul Cézanne’s late works show he was a seeker like Frost.

Galenson’s analysis led the National Science Foundation to fund his current study of the creative life cycles of Nobel economists (among Chicago’s laureates Gary Becker, AM’53, PhD’55, is a finder, Theodore Schultz a seeker). But Galenson can’t pull himself away from the humanists: his work on writers—digesting their letters and diaries and tracking their works’ appearances in anthologies and literary criticism—he does on the side, with the help of a hired poet.


John Milton Poise and Noise

Deep in the Albert Merritt Billings building associate professor of neurology John Milton steps side to side as he balances a wooden dowel upright on his fingertip. “I’m getting pretty good at this,” he exclaims.

Milton isn’t clowning around during a break from directing the Hospitals’ Epilepsy Center, where he performs implants of vagal nerve stimulators in severely affected patients. He’s demonstrating his unexpected discovery about the body’s nervous system: it generates random “noise” to handle tasks—like balancing a dowel or standing still without falling—that require response in less time than it takes for a signal to travel to the brain and back (100–200 milliseconds for the stick, 250–500 milliseconds for standing). “If the nervous system can only make a correction every 200 milliseconds,” he asks, “what’s it doing the other 199?”

“Flipping coins.”

In a 2002 Physical Review Letters study, Milton and Juan Cabrera, a physicist in Venezuela, filmed a dozen people balancing the two-and-a-half-foot-long dowel, measured the size of its wobbles, and then correlated them with subjects’ hand movements to keep it upright. About 98 percent of the movements occurred in less than 100 milliseconds. “That tells us something uncontrolled by the nervous system is at work,” says Milton. He calls that something “noise.” “The hand makes little errors in its position. It should move a certain time in a certain direction, but it doesn’t get it exactly right.” The difference between where the fingertip should move and where it goes is measured as noise. And the errors, he notes, actually seem to help: the stick stays balanced only if it is on the verge of toppling over.

Milton isn’t sure why the errors help or how noise works—at this point, his observations exist only as a mathematical formula. But his finding is making neuroscientists rethink their ideas about motor control. Next he’ll research “how you get better” at tasks that require quick but precise reflexes. His focus will be the golf swing—something Milton, with a handicap of 6, is already pretty good at.


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