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Omega thanks

I just want to congratulate you, your staff, and William Burton on the wonderful piece, “The Omega Factor,” that appeared in the April issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. In recent years, I have been reading a lot about such ideas, and Burton’s article is the clearest and most succinct I have seen. It synthesized the whole issue for me, helping me to fully digest all the bits of information that I had picked up on the subject. After reading “The Omega Factor,” I felt like screaming, “Eureka.”

Again, thanks and congratulations.

Robert A. Bennett, X’58

New York, New York

Softball curveball

I thoroughly enjoyed learning of the latest thinking about the cosmos and the imminent satellite launches to settle related issues. My biggest wish before I die is that science finally explicate, and explain to me, the reality that I and We live in.

One question has bothered me that perchance one of the U of C physicists may elucidate. The Big Bang theory has the universe expanding starting from a small size, say that of a softball. An unrelated concept is that as we observe galaxies that are at increasing distances, they appear as when they were younger because of the time spent by light to travel the great distance to our eyes. In a reductio ad absurdum, with better telescopes we may eventually see objects 15 billion light years distant, at the very beginning of the cosmos…when the universe was the size of a softball! Please, someone, resolve this paradox for me.

Harold I. Jacobson, AB’53, SB’57

Santa Barbara, California

Michael S. Turner, the Bruce and Diana Rauner distinguished service professor and chair of the astronomy & astrophysics department, steps up to the plate: The light we see today from the most distant galaxies was emitted when the universe was only about 1/6th its present size and was only one billion years old. Because galaxies only came into existence when the universe was about one billion years old, we will have just about reached the limit to how far back we can see galaxies. With some luck and large telescopes like the 10-meter Keck telescopes, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Next Generation Space Telescope, we may be able to see the first supernovae (explosions of massive stars) that are thought to have occurred when the universe was about 1/10th its present size and less than one billion years old.

Earlier than that, we enter the dark ages, the time before stars and galaxies. However, with microwave eyes we can see the microwave echo of the Big Bang, the cosmic microwave background radiation discovered by Penzias and Wilson in 1964. It provides us with a snapshot of the universe at the age of 300,000 years, when it was 1/1,000th of its present size. This snapshot—a Rosetta Stone for cosmology—contains a record of the universe’s earliest moments. U of C cosmologists John E. Carlstrom, Stephan Meyer, and Mark W. Dragovan are building state-of-the-art instruments that will be deployed in balloons and satellites and at the South Pole to study this microwave echo. We hope the measurements they make will help answer questions like: Will the universe expand forever or recollapse? Did all the structure we see today originate from quantum mechanical fluctuations on subatomic scales? What is the nature of the ubiquitous dark matter?

Curricular lament

I read with dismay about the revision of the undergraduate curriculum (“Chicago Journal,” April/98). Compromising the core curriculum, a hallmark of the institution, by chopping it from a half to a third, and then better “integrating” what is left with other studies, is as unfortunate as having the all-but-newborn one-third turned over to “electives.” Regrettably, the reform falls squarely within a venerable tradition in higher education chronicled by the National Association of Scholars in its study “The Dissolution of General Education: 1940–1993.” Prospective students may now study postmodern trends in cinema instead of what would have been covered in the lost one-third of the core curriculum. Excuse me, but I think this is a serious step backward.

If the impetus to reform is to better curry the favor of students (and their parents’ tuition dollars), that too is lamentable, at least to those of us from an earlier time who believe that learned faculty are better able to give good direction on what is of lasting worth for study than high- school graduates whose youth and hormones undermine their own judgment. That there have been curriculum changes in the past is no excuse for making the present mistake. Chicago now becomes much more like, rather than more distinguishable from, too many colleges and universities not as worthy of note. I concede it makes good copy to say students may hunt for dinosaur bones one week and visit a clinic for the mentally ill the next, but who are we kidding? On these grounds, perhaps there is a case to be made for ebonics after all.

The central issue is what subject material best enables teaching scholars to impart the history and vitality of humankind’s best thinking and modes of inquiry to young and relatively unformed students. It strikes me that looking diverse, and being more free-form in regard to curricula, decidedly does not meet the bill. It looks too much like an “out” for tired or bored faculty, and pandering to the sentiment that students, not faculty, know best about how to develop their intellectual hardware.

Welcome to Easy Street. It is sad to see Chicago’s incremental joinder in the dissolution of higher education. If intellectual vitality is to be replaced by politically correct sensibilities, academic mentoring by pandering to those taught, and hard work by happy days for all, tuition rates should rightly begin to raise serious questions about value among more thoughtful parents. Like a bull stock market, it is great fun while it lasts, but the long-haul probabilities point south.

Kimball J. Corson, AM’68, JD’71

Phoenix, Arizona

Wired writing?

In the April/98 “Chicago Journal,” Dean of the College John Boyer is quoted as saying that in the revised undergraudate curriculum “resources devoted to the development of student writing will double.”

In the Age of the Internet, what is the nature of the program to assure that graduates of the College can write clearly and effectively?

Arthur N. Wilkins, AM’50

Kansas City, Missouri

Larry D. McEnerney, AM’80, director of University writing programs, replies: The Internet doesn’t seem to be diminishing interest in writing at the College; our task is to provide resources and get out of the way. We want faculty to be able to include even more writing in their courses. We want College students to write more effectively and to push their writing further. We want graduate students to be more effective at helping the faculty teach writing. Here’s how we’ll do it: writing-intensive courses throughout the College; new offerings in creative and expository writing; more training in pedagogy for graduate assistants; writing interns throughout the Humanities Common Core courses; a colloquium/journal for first-year students who want to write beyond the classroom. The “Reply” function may be turning e-mail into sound bites, but we still value clarity sustained page after page.

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