The University of Chicago Magazine

February 1997


Scaling the sci-fi heights

As a science-fiction fan of long standing, who spent many happy hours watching the original Star Trek series and sharing pizza with dorm mates at University House, Greenwood Hall, and Ida Noyes, I want to thank you for Michael LaBarbera's wonderful article on applying scaling analysis to the creatures who inhabit science-fiction films ("The Strange Laboratory of Dr. LaBarbera," Oct.­Dec./ 96). If the goal of your publication is both to entertain and inform, you were particularly successful in this instance.

Stephen M. Goodman, AB'70

Scarsdale, New York

Incredible shrinking anecdote

Michael LaBarbera's discussion of Hollywood sci-fi movies brought back a story that reinforces his concerns.

My father was in special effects at Universal Studios in the 1950s (his career spanned the 1930s through the 1970s, from The Wizard of Oz to Jaws). He came home one evening particularly frustrated during the shooting of The Incredible Shrinking Man.

He had been asked to construct a larger-than-life scissors with which the hero would do battle. He suggested to the foreman that this would be more complicated, since the item would have to be hollow. No one could understand why. My father patiently explained the scissors' weight would increase by the cube of the increase in its linear dimensions. The others scoffed.

So he constructed the scissors as requested, and then asked the boss to pick it up. No one could lift it, so a hollow one was produced. In Hollywood at that time, special-effects men had to know how to change reality, since they weren't able to change the script.

Carl Baar, AM'63, PhD'69


Required reading

My husband, a U of C alumnus [Robert W. Chesnut, MBA'96], showed me the article by Michael LaBarbera. I think it is hilarious, but it also makes some important points that I often try to get across to students. May I have permission to copy the article for educational purposes? I would like to hand it out in some of my classes. Thanks very much.

Ruth Chesnut

Biology Department
University of Evansville
Evansville, Indiana

Total recall

I enjoyed Dr. LaBarbera's article, but I saw a mistake that I had to bring to his attention. The book Fantastic Voyage was a novelization by Isaac Asimov, not vice versa.

In defense of Dr. Asimov--one of my favorite science-fiction writers--he managed to correct one of the fatal flaws (no pun intended) of the movie. When the movie ends, our heroes have managed to beat the clock and escape the patient's body before deminiaturizing. Unfortunately, they left the soon-to-deminiaturize sub inside the patient's head. Oops. Asimov at least managed to write in a way to get the sub out. He also rewrote the whole concept in Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain.

But hey, that's why it's called science fiction.

Philip D. Pan, AB'83


The final chapter

On the title page of the Houghton Mifflin printing of Fantastic Voyage, it states that this is "a novel by Isaac Asimov, based on the screenplay by Harry Kleiner, from the original story by Otto Klement and Jay Lewis Bixby." Also, in the introductory notes to his 1987 novel Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain, Asimov writes, "In 1966 my novel Fantastic Voyage was published. It was, actually, a novelization of a motion picture that had been written by others. I followed the plot line that existed as closely as I could....I was never quite satisfied with the novel, although it did very well...because I never felt it to be entirely mine. When the opportunity arose to write another novel on the same theme....I agreed only on the condition that I do it entirely my own way....For better or for worse, this novel is mine."

Thanks for pulling back the curtain that separates reality and movie fantasy, while shattering my own personal, though somewhat fragile, reality. I can't argue with scientific fact, but if there can't really be 22-foot-tall gorillas or teensy, tiny people, where did they get them for the movies? This will result in many sleepless nights.

Richard J. Rubesch, AB'77

Spooner, Wisconsin

Enlarging the College

As a graduate of the College and a former member of its staff (I spent three years interviewing applicants for the Admissions Office and another three as a teaching assistant in the Humanities Core), I found your "Special Report" on the College in the Magazine's Oct.­Dec./96 issue disturbingly diplomatic. Must alumni read between the lines of a report on the University's rediscovery of the College to learn what has been painfully apparent to those involved in its daily operation in recent years: namely that the current president intends to enlarge the College, the better to fund the University?

You quote Mr. Sonnenschein as seconding former Dean of the College F. Champion Ward's view that "the College is more than an institution, it is a cause"--a touching view to all who believe it a unique institution worth preserving. But judging from Mr. Sonnenschein's letter to the faculty, which you quote, the cause is strictly financial. " the only university in its peer group whose net undergraduate tuition revenues do not even cover the wage base for the arts and sciences faculty," you paraphrase. But in terms of the College, Chicago has no real peers, and administrators jeopardize the College's uniqueness--which for over half a century has meant an intimate college within a research university--by standardizing it.

The risks to the College from dramatically increased enrollment--large classes, more graduate-student teaching, less faculty contact for undergraduates--have already begun to be felt by College students. Discussing this expansion as if it were the response to the long-standing recruitment problem only muddies the water further. Chicago has long suffered an image problem at the undergraduate and graduate levels alike, which efforts like the Reynolds Club renovation may help to counter, as they improve the lives of students. But to suggest a face-lift will attract more students who just happen to be both the brightest and the wealthiest--since tuition, after all, is the key here--seems a bit jejune.

Stephen H. Longmire, AB'89, AM'90


President Sonnenschein, Dean Boyer, and other faculty and administrators engaged in charting the College's course emphasize that, while financial considerations clearly are important, the primary goal is to have more of the nation's--and the world's--most talented and committed students seek the exceptional experience of a "Chicago education." U of C administrators have stressed that the College will not increase in size unless the applicant pool is even deeper and stronger than it is today, noting that the quality of the U of C's collegiate education has long depended, and will continue to depend, upon the College's status as a relatively small undergraduate program within a top-flight research university.--Ed.

The human factor

I want to thank you for the very interesting article in the Oct.­Dec./96 issue on Isaac Wirszup ("The Wirszup Factor").

When I arrived on campus some 45 years ago (in late 1951) as a 16-year-old early entrant, one of my first memories was of a math course that used some notes by Prof. Wirszup. These opened a side of mathematics to me that I had never before known and began a lifelong love affair with the discipline. It is interesting and moving to read now of the human side of this man.

Robert E. MacRae, AB'53, SM'56, PhD'61

Boulder, Colorado

Wilno's disputed past

The article "The Wirszup Factor" mentions Wilno as a city in Poland. Unless you are talking about another town, Wilno--also known as Vilna, Vilnius, or Vilnyus--is a Lithuanian city, currently capital of independent Lithuania. Yes, Lithuania used to be a part of Poland, but in 1795 it became a province of the Russian Empire.

After World War I and the Russian Revolution, Lithuania was proclaimed a democratic, independent republic.

In 1939 Lithuania was not occupied by German troops. On the contrary, in the summer of 1940 it was invaded by the Red army and had to become a Soviet Socialist Republic. Only in 1941 was Lithuania occupied by Nazi Germany. The Nazis would not have waited for two years to detain the Jews.

Checking the facts may not be a bad idea.

Mikhail Godkin, MBA'84

San Diego, California

Poland claimed ownership of Vilnius from 1920 through its 1939 occupation by Germany. On Aug. 23, 1939, Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed a partition agreement that returned Vilno to Lithuania, which was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940. Nazi occupation of Vilnius began in 1941.--Ed.

Risky business

As a former student of Howard Margolis, "Calculated Risk" ("Investigations," Oct.­Dec./96) was part icularly welcomed. In my studies in the College, I became a proponent of an environmental measure that is a victim of the cognitive logjam Margolis describes--I advocate Waste-to-Energy incinerators.

In my work, I picked some of the best scientific brains in their fields, including chemical oceanographers, environmental engineers, and biologists whose work will, hopefully, break down the logs that jam the cognitive faculties of individuals, communities, and policy makers. I know that my chances of holding the beliefs that I do would be far lower were it not for my access to the experts. Up in my closet, I have two large boxes of materials compiled during the course of my studies on WTEs. How do I put that in a nutshell?! How then, can we expect laypeople not to simply react when they do not know (want to know?) about the many shades of gray?

Gray is good for those who understand, but gray drives laypeople to hold "better safe than sorry" positions. Policy makers who blindly follow public opinion insult scientists who strive to do good, especially when the experts are more than willing to help achieve "fungibility"--they did it for me when I was but an undergrad.

Birgit Bogler, AB'96

New York City

Hang down your head, John Dewey

I have closely followed the issues and unfolding events surrounding the closing of the Department of Education ("Chicago Journal," Oct.­Dec./96). As one of its graduates, I must express my deep concern over what is certainly an unjustified and grievous action on the part of Dean Saller and many faculty members of the Social Sciences Division. Based on his response to my letter to him, President Sonnenschein appears ready to go along.

The evidence at hand belies the claims made by Dean Saller about the quality and vitality in the department and the necessity of destroying it. One is left to conclude that Social Sciences faculty's action in support of Saller represents more of a feeding frenzy than any real interest in improving divisional quality. One notes with interest, for example, that after a long hiring freeze, several new posts in the Department of Sociology were recently advertised, perhaps explaining the strong vocal support of many of its leading members for the dean's action.

During my years at Chicago, and especially during its centennial, warm sentiments were often expressed about the strength of our "community." It appears that for many, these were hollow words, and that the only community evident at Chicago is one which jumps to expel its longstanding members and institutions whenever it is expedient. If this current action is completed, it will stand as a great betrayal of many of the principles upon which the University of Chicago was established. Moreover, like most other education graduates, I will lose all sense of connection with this university.

Roger C. Shouse, PhD'94

State College, Pennsylvania

Scuttling the good ship Education

I think that the recommendation, following a lengthy committee review, to shut down the Department of Education is a practical and expedient idea. The outside committee that reviewed the department has identified an aging faculty, a leadership gap, below-par commitment to teaching, and a spotty record of scholarship. Why not cut the losses and disperse the department's money to other departments in the Social Sciences Division?

It's the '90s, after all, not the idealistic '60s, and a great university cannot easily afford, let alone stand up for, a century-old dedication to a cause. Even a cause as fundamental as democratic education. And even a university as world renowned as ours would not be held in less esteem for wishing to avoid the inconvenience that would surely be caused by a recommitment and rededication of a department that finds itself on the shoals, even if that department has brought international respect to the school. No formidable ship, not even one conceived by John Dewey himself, not even one that has opened channels of thought and innovation to thousands of teachers--not even a ship like this one should be given the benefit of a rising tide before being left for salvage. Getting the venerable Department of Education back on its historic course would require too much institutional leadership, too much hard work, and the kind of wisdom that sees beyond the current tide. Better to bow to current conditions, count on futility, and scuttle the good ship. Who has time or will to do otherwise?

R. Jim Stahl, MAT'81

East Greenwich, Rhode Island

Second (Amendment) opinion

I'm roused to respond to Edwin T. Lee 's astonishing letter about Abner Mikva ("Letters," Oct.­Dec./96). Lee, AB'74, evidently assumes that "protective" violence by individuals is acceptable, but not by the government. While I certainly share his wariness about government use of force (in Vietnam and elsewhere, as well as in many police and FBI actions), I definitely do not trust guns in the hands of most of the individuals who possess them. Police and hunters may be exceptions (and even they frequently misuse their weapons), but too many people who own guns are endangering their families and fellow-citizens with injury or death--accidentally; deliberately; in the heat of anger; or by having weapons get into the hands of children, burglars, drug dealers, or gun nuts. And the more guns that are available, as the NRA and Mr. Lee advocate, the more they get used.

Statistics and common sense indicate that people who try to use guns against intruders or rapists usually make their own deaths more likely. Mr. Lee also justifies gun proliferation by citing the Second Amendment, which may have had other interpretations in lawless frontier days, but should now reasonably allow only a well-trained, official militia the right of arms, not every insecure man (or woman, or street kid) who believes himself safer and more "macho" behind a gun. Gun control has cost lives and freedom? Citizens should be armed to physically restrain the U.S. government? I think Mr. Lee is living deludely on the other side of the Looking Glass.

Ann Morrissett Davidon, X'47


Walk on the web side

Thank you so much for having such a strong presence on the World Wide Web. I am working on a professional report here at the University of Texas, for a joint program in law and public policy, and I needed a copy of that "Kids Having Kids" article ("Investigations," June/96). I have tried to find my own copy of the magazine in my room, but I've had no luck so far. I was planning to look for it in the library system here at UT, but I wasn't holding my breath that they'd have it. Then, lo and behold, I stumbled across your site while browsing the U of C web pages, and there was the article. If only the rest of my research were as easy!

Laura Lucinda-McCutchin, AB'89

Austin, Texas

Starting with the Dec./94 issue, back issues can be found in their entirety at

Another facet of an alumnus's life

In the Oct.-Dec./96 issue, the death of Michael Ference, Jr., SB'33, SM'34, PhD'37, is listed without reference to his faculty position in the University's departments of Physics and Meterology through 1945. He was one of my professors and was outstanding. Ference was also a weekly columnist on science for the Chicago Tribune.

Robert R. Bentley, SB'39, SM'44


The Magazine invites letters on its contents or on topics related to the U of C. Letters must be signed and may be edited. Preference is given to letters of fewer than 300 words. Write: Editor, University of Chicago Magazine, 1313 E. 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637. E-mail:

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