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Letters: “If Richard Hellie would buy a flat-screen monitor”

Forgotten ancestors

Lydialyle Gibson’s article on Rick Kittles and his genetic database for African Americans (“Long Way Home,” Jan–Feb/08) was both heartwarming and informative, but it’s worth remembering that our DNA points to many ancestral homes. Family trees grow exponentially, but uniparental lineages (mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA) possess a single individual at each rung of the family tree.

Looking back a mere ten generations, one can expect to have no less than 1,024 (210) ancestors. Only one of these will be the result of an unbroken maternal lineage. Likewise, only a single ancestor will be the result of an unbroken paternal lineage. Look far enough back in time, and you’re likely to find that you have ancestors that lived in not only Sierra Leone but also Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria. 

An interesting corollary is that any two present-day individuals are likely to share a common ancestor relatively recently in the past. This is because family trees grow exponentially and local populations are connected by migration and gene flow. In the words of Alex Haley: “When you start talking about family, about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth.”

Joe Lachance, AB’96
Stony Brook, New York


Wow, one of the more interesting reads.  I’m ordering copies of Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (“Fish Out of Water,” Jan–Feb/08) to send to my internist, my gastroenterologist, my orthopedic surgeon, my neurologist, my dermatologist, and my psychiatrist—all of whom I am sure will reply by telling me to go soak in a sea of salt water.

Ron Tarrson, MBA’72
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Jury-rigged usage

I was fascinated by Neil Shubin’s “Fish Out of Water” article, and particularly interested in the origin of singultus, or hiccups.

During my 40 years of medical practice it was always a mystery. I noticed on page 36 that Shubin implicates a part of the brain stem that controls breathing in fish and amphibians, saying that this neurological control has been “jerry-rigged to work in mammals” and that the hiccups problem occurs because of that adaptation. As a physician and old salt I happen to know that the term he meant to use is actually “jury-rigged,” and probably derives from the name of a temporary mast fashioned from available materials at sea when one of the ship’s original masts has been broken. The replacement is called a “jury” mast, and the shrouds that hold it up and halyards that raise the sails are called the “standing” or “running” (jury) rigging. When a ship arrives in port with a stumpy, temporary mast replacing one lost in a storm, a battle, or a misadventure, she is said to be “jury-rigged.” Jury-rigging implies a clever or ingenious repair.

Shubin may have confused the term, as many do, with “gerrymandered” or, more likely, with “jerry-built.” The latter term implies quick and shoddy construction and may derive, as some believe, from the name of an infamous builder or, as others surmise, from the walls of Jericho, which yielded to Gabriel’s horn. However, it probably antedates the pejorative “Jerry” for Germans that the British coined, I think, during WW II. (Some say WW I, but I think the term in use then was “hun” or “bosche.”)

I know, I know, when a term starts to slip and so many misuse it that they begin to predominate, the meaning should probably just change. But I find that there’s a certain elegance to the history of words, and am one who tries to help preserve their original meanings when I can.

Of course Shubin may react the way my daughter, then in high school, did when I tried to break her of saying, “Me and Sally are going to the mall.” She wasn’t interested. My way would have sounded too foreign to the ears of her peers. Now she’s nearly 50, a full professor with tenure, and still says, “Me and Sally are going to the mall.”

Denis Franklin, AB’54
Berkeley, California

Problematic comments

I appreciate the variety and quality of the articles in the University of Chicago Magazine, and I found the recent article on the Big Problems course Biological and Cultural Evolution (“Course Work,” Jan–Feb/08) particularly interesting. I was dis-mayed, however, by the sexist comments Bill Wimsatt was reported to have made regarding Erector sets and other modular toys such as Legos and Lincoln Logs. He assumed that only “kid brothers” would be interested in such toys, and when only two students indicated that their “kid brothers” had Erector sets, he was “aghast” that there would not be any mechanical engineers in the next generation. The article states that Wimsatt ends his lecture “with an exhortation: ‘Buy your kid brother a Tinkertoy set for Christmas, and play with it.’”

Especially since I am a woman, the mother of two daughters, and an attorney working in employment discrimination, I am concerned if educators are perpetuating gender stereotypes. It is striking that the same issue contains a letter from a woman (Ruta Pempe Sevo, AM’70, PhD’76, AM’78, “Letters,” Jan–Feb/08) concerning gender bias in faculty selection. As director of Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action for a freight railroad, I can appreciate how difficult it is to sensitize people who are used to stereotyping and who unconsciously or carelessly make statements that reveal their prejudices. There was at least one woman in Professor Wimsatt’s class, who was quoted extensively. I wonder how she felt about Professor Wimsatt’s remarks.

Kathleen C. Vance, AM’74
Bellevue, Nebraska

How safe is south campus?

I see from the tragic death of Amadou Cisse (“Chicago Journal,” Jan–Feb/08) that little has changed with regard to security on the campus’s south side for the last half-century.

In the late 1950s my former wife and I lived at Ellis and 61st, as it was the cheapest available housing. Every night we heard gunfire, and every morning we could see buckshot shells in the gutters. After my wife barely escaped being raped in front of our apartment building, we began to carry a revolver when we went out. Once in her case and twice in mine, had we not been able to show the revolver, neither of us would have lived to graduate. Given the racial tensions of the time, drive-by shootings also were not uncommon.

Informing the campus police was useless, as at that time most of the officers were retired policemen who had the reputation of running in the opposite direction at any indication of trouble. Informing the city police in those days could have been dangerous.

Jordan Paper, AB’60
Victoria, British Columbia

Sonya Malunda, the University’s assistant vice president for community affairs, responds: The late 1950s marked the be-ginning of what was to become a long period of decline for the Woodlawn community. Between 1960 and 2000 Woodlawn’s population fell from 81,279 to 27,086 as integration provoked white flight (in 1930 Woodlawn was 86 percent white; by 1960, 10.4 percent; in 2000, 3 percent) and worsening poverty chased away middle-class blacks. The 1960s and 1970s were not much better, as gangs commanded the streets and neighborhood deterioration sparked “insurance fires” that claimed more than 100 buildings. But today, years of dogged efforts by committed Woodlawn residents, the City of Chicago, and the University of Chicago are finally paying off.

The University, while often criticized for retreating during the desperate years of neighborhood decline, is fully engaged in partnership efforts with community residents on quality-of-life issues, including public safety. The University of Chicago Police now patrol the Woodlawn neighborhood south to 63rd Street, crime is down, new housing development is at an all-time high, and more than 1,000 University faculty, staff, and students call Woodlawn home. While much work remains to fully address the community’s safety, housing, education, and employment challenges, I am fully confident that Mr. Paper would be amazed by the revitalization that has taken place and by the changes under way.

I invite readers to see the February/06 Magazine article on the Woodlawn community, to visit the Office of Community Affairs’ Web site for more information on the University’s community engagement efforts, and to view the University’s south-campus development plans online. We are confident all of these efforts will further support Woodlawn’s reconstitution as a vibrant, diverse, safe, mixed-income community.

The rule of law should rule

Jack Goldsmith contends in “Power Struggle” (“Chicago Journal,” Jan–Feb/08) that the problem with the U.S. government is too many restrictive laws, tying the hands of good people just trying to protect us. I would suggest that the problem is rather an administration with disdain for the concept of rule of law. For example, the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions and the 1994 UN Convention Against Torture clearly make torture illegal. But this government has flouted the law and tortured with impunity, all the while, of course, claiming that it doesn’t. Torture has not made us safer, but it has destroyed our moral standing in the world.

\We have a law that addresses eavesdropping on citizens, one that balances the government’s need to obtain information with the rights of citizens to privacy: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Bush administration ignored the FISA court and intentionally, proudly even, broke this law. There are many other examples of egregious lawbreaking by this administration. 

One of our wisest forefathers, Benjamin Franklin, said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” With its disastrous policies at home and abroad, the Bush administration has denied our basic values, created new enemies, and, in the process, made us less safe.

It is disheartening that a law professor and former administration insider continues to argue that the problem is one of laws, rather than one of lawbreakers.

Jean Garrison Athey, AM’71, PhD’76
Brookeville, Maryland

Seeing red

Lydialyle Gibson’s Jan–Feb/08 “Investigations” article “All Quiet on the Forefront,” with its subheadline, “Historian Richard Hellie explores Russia’s legacy of backwardness,” took me personally backward to the darkest days of the Cold War, which I thought were over. So it is disturbing, indeed, to learn that someone who has spent most of the past half-century researching Russian history at Chicago feels impelled to launch a diatribe that Russia is an irredeemable “backward civilization,” where, as he put it, “[b]ackwardness will endure.”

Hellie’s planned book on the topic is unlikely to impress scholars with its originality, since its thesis of Russian “backwardness” was discovered 200 years ago by Russia’s own intelligentsia. Still, Hellie’s sweeping characterization of Russia’s backwardness as “an almost inescapable condition” is breathtaking in its lack of nuance.

While denouncing Russia’s shoddy political and economic systems, Hellie fails to take into account the individual, personal, cultural, educational, spiritual, and even personality dimensions of the actual Russians who make up Russia’s civilization. The short shrift he gives to their qualities, which have charmed many other observers, is reflected in his astonishing use of the epithet “brilliant exceptions” to describe Russia’s innumerable world-class contributors to civilizations. These include epic novelists, poets, dramatists, essayists, dissidents, composers, choreographers, chess masters, painters, mathematicians, chemists, atomic scientists, space scientists, psychologists, pedagogues, aeronautical engineers, athletes, Red Army and Napoleonic-era generals, tank designers, and warriors who staged one of the greatest military achievements in history: bearing the brunt of defeating Nazi Germany and saving the West’s own “civilization.”

Finally, this chaired professor of history is blind to the possibilities of Russia’s future, after less than two decades since the fall of communism. Not surprisingly, Hellie, as reported in your article, fails to consider why the relatively brief post-Soviet era has been so disappointing in its lack of progress towards democracy.

Without even mentioning the ineptness of Boris Yeltsin, Hellie also ignores the role of the United States and NATO in their plans to flank the new Russia with a militarized alliance of potentially hostile states, all of which have grudges to settle with Russia. (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovenia are already buying F-16 and F-18 attack aircraft in preparation for full NATO membership).

As a historian, Hellie should know that where there are fears of new outside enemies, including the fear of internal weakness, human rights do not prosper, even in the United States. Hellie should start finding some light at the end of the tunnel. Although Putin is undeniably a nasty fellow, he is far from being Stalin or Ivan the Terrible. And there are no gulags in the Russian Federation, which, unfortunately, cannot be said for our gulag in Guantánamo. 

Ernest Blum, AB’52, AM’59 

Professor Hellie responds: In spite of Mr. Blum’s expectations, the teacher-scholar’s job is not to be a paid adulator but to tell accurately about the past, to make logical and real connections among past and current events—in short, to understand both past and present. Nor can a speaker present all of a country’s history and all possible foreign comparative examples in one 70-minute lecture.

Russia’s consciousness of its backwardness goes back at least to 1470, when Muscovy began the practice of hiring foreigners to do things the Russians themselves could not. That not only intellectuals were conscious of Russia’s backwardness, but also types such as Nicholas II and a Leningrad University pogromist who was at Chicago as a Fulbright scholar, indicates that backwardness had been uppermost in aware Russians’ minds for centuries.

This consciousness persists today, as expressed by a leading Russian economist who said several months ago that “the problem of Russian capitalism is an absence of brains”; in Putin’s attempt to get Russians abroad to return “home” to “provide professional skills and knowledge”; and in the statement by Putin’s anointed successor, Dmitri Medvedev, that Russia should copy China. This needs to be taught to those who don’t know it, and attempts made to understand this major half-millennium continuity.

My talk, as noted in the article, explicitly stated that it was not intended to be an exercise in Russia-bashing. Rather, the ultimate task of my book in progress, The Structure of Modern Russian History, is to explain the three Russian service-class revolutions (1480, 1700, 1927–28), not to adulate at length Russian accomplishments—which the service-class revolutions ignored. Perhaps the best way to comprehend Russia since 1991 is to look at the U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting affirmative action. A major issue was timing. Most of the justices believed 25 years should be long enough for this violation of the Constitution to accomplish its desired task. Justice Thurgood Marshall disagreed, saying that a century of affirmative action would be needed to overcome the legacy of slavery and discrimination. The same thinking is applicable to post-1991 Russia and the legacy of slavery, serfdom, autocracy, and socialism. Change is very slow.

Guantánamo, the Patriot Act, high-fructose corn syrup, ethanol, and America’s other horrors are all irrelevant to Russia’s backwardness, its legacy, and its future.

Seeing space

I just finished the Jan–Feb/08 issue, and this is the sixth e-mail I have had to write as a result. The others were frivolous—recommendations to friends to read books, taunts to enemies regarding their supposed facts, notes to self suggesting further investigations—but this one is deadly serious. If Richard Hellie would buy a flat-screen monitor, he could uncover additional space in his office upon which to pile more papers, magazines, and books.

Rick Stewart, MBA’93
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Hellie as teacher

I was pleased to see the article about Professor Hellie. It brought back fond memories of a course in medieval Russian history that he taught in the late 1960s when I was a student at the Graduate Library School. He was an excellent teacher, and thanks to him I have kept up a lifelong interest in early Russian history.

Henry Saxe, AM’68
Amarillo, Texas

Cosmic mistakes, Part  I

On page 25 of the Jan–Feb/08 issue, the “Citations” item headed “Cosmic Rays Illuminated” asserts that cosmic rays were “first detected” in 1963.

That’s interesting, as I worked for Professor Marcel Schein’s Cosmic Ray Laboratory in Ryerson Hall in 1956 and 1957. Dr. Carl York and many others, whose names I have forgotten after 50 years, worked there. And it existed many years before.

We routinely sent up blocks of layers of photographic emulsion tethered to large weather balloons, launched from Stagg Field and the Williams Bay Observatory (among other sites), to be exposed to cosmic rays at high altitude. And many a summer day we took the lab truck out in the countryside to retrieve the emulsion payload capsules when they fell to Earth in farmer’s fields in northern Indiana and central Illinois. Each capsule had a prominent label on it to call the lab upon discovery. The emulsion sheets were peeled off the blocks and developed at Ryerson, then examined, catalogued, and analyzed by microscope for the tracks of the heavy particles, mesons, and baryons. I know, that was one of my jobs. If cosmic rays were not discovered until 1963, we must all have been ahead of our time, or what was it we were detecting?

As you can imagine, the very name of the laboratory engendered numerous turgid/mystic/paranoid/religion-tinged letters from mental outliers, which we would read aloud to much mirth at the lab’s Christmas party. Indeed, those gems would make a great book.

Jacques M. Dulin, SB’57
Sequim, Washington

Mr. Dulin is, of course, correct: Austrian-American researcher Victor Hess won the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physics for his 1912 observation of what came to be known as cosmic rays.—Ed.

Cosmic mistakes, Part II

I know that it is difficult to summarize discoveries on topics such as physics and cosmic rays. However, I was surprised at the number of statements that were either in error or misleading in the Magazine’s “Citations” piece.

What should have been explained in the item is that the origin of cosmic rays has been a mystery for a very long time. Cosmic rays come with different energies—many at lower energy and only a few at very high energy. It is only recently that an extremely large detector at the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina has been able to collect enough of the high-energy ones to allow scientists to trace the origin to specific locations in the sky. ...

The issue in the recent work was detection of cosmic rays that were not “disrupted” by magnetic fields between galaxies. In fact, disruption in the atmosphere is necessary for the method of detection used in Auger.

David Underwood, SM’68, PhD’73
Naperville, Illinois

I’ll take pedagogy for 500, Alex

A salute to all the great teachers out there! I was intrigued to read in the College class notes for ’86 (“Alumni News,” Jan–Feb/08) that Kenneth Mellendorf at Illinois Central College is using “a Jeopardy-style clicker approach to questions he asks in see how many students seem to get what he’s talking about.” This technology has been around quite a while but apparently needs to be rediscovered more.

It’s recently become a wild success in grades 6–8 mathematics classes in my local public-school system. One enthusiastic student reported to his father that the kids thought it was really neat that they could test the teacher on how well he was doing.

Julie B. Lovins, AM’70, PhD’73
Mountain View, California

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