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The O'Shea Report: November 2002

At every monthly faculty meeting during the school year, Dean of Faculty Donal O'Shea presents brief overviews of recent publications and other achievements by the Mount Holyoke faculty. Here are excerpts from his report for November 2002.

Professor of Art Marion Miller received the commission to paint the official portrait of former Smith College acting president John Connolly. This is a big honor.

Professor of Philosophy Thomas Wartenberg received a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship in the film department at the University of Kent in Canterbury for the spring semester. This award is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, a British foundation dedicated to the support of high quality research and education. The purpose of Leverhulme Visiting Professorships is "to enable U.K. universities to host an internationally distinguished academic from overseas (chosen and invited by the host institution) in order to enhance the research skills and work of the host institution. Visiting Professors will be expected to offer a short course of 'Leverhulme Lectures' to mark their residence in a British university." They are available in any field but are very competitive. You can't apply for them directly; a British university has to invite you and apply on your behalf.

Donald Sanders, executive artistic director of the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, wrote and produced the play Thomas Cole, A Waking Dream, which played October 24-27. The play was a wonderful, dreamy account of the life and work of Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River school of painting. Vanessa James, associate professor of theatre arts, did the costumes (plastic for women, cloth for men), which were stunning, and Jens Christiansen, professor of economics, and Paul Staiti, Professor of Fine Arts on the Alumnae Foundation, made their stage debuts.

The second edition of Real Choices/New Voices: How Proportional Representation Elections Could Revitalize American Democracy by Professor of Politics Douglas Amy has appeared with Columbia University Press. Many times, small, seemingly trivial, almost mechanical things (a bad hip, for example) that we take for granted can have enormous, and unrecognized, effects. Doug's book focuses on one such instance: the winner-take-all system of voting in the United States (and Canada), as compared to different, more proportional systems in other democracies. Doug goes through the different systems of proportional representation, which might sound like pretty dry stuff but isn't, because of his lively analyses of the influences that these systems have. The most fascinating thing, however, is the analysis of the effect that our current voting system has on American political life. This was an eye-opener for me. Doug traces many features of American political life, such as the outsize influence of lobbyists and pressure groups, low voter turnouts, and the success of the two-party system, to name a few, to the voting system. And he does so very convincingly. If I'd thought about it at all, I'd always ascribed more cosmic, unfixable influences for our political life being the way it is.

The fourth edition of Biochemistry by Mary K. Campbell, Class of 1929 Virginia Apgar Professor of Chemistry, has just appeared with Thomson-Brooks/Cole publishers. Mary's book is one of the best-known biochemistry textbooks and has been translated into Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Portuguese. For the new edition, Mary has taken a coauthor, Shawn Farrell, of Colorado State University. The book is visually stunning. It contains beautiful three-dimensional pictures of large molecules, as well as discussions of their secondary and tertiary structures unknown only a few years ago. (The primary, secondary, and tertiary structures of a phone cord are, respectively, a copper wire coated with plastic, the way the cord coils when you buy it, and the maddening way it twists and writhes and folds back on itself after two or three months of use.) Mary has shamelessly snuck Mount Holyoke references in all over the text (there is a picture of an MHC field hockey game in the table of contents). Page one contains a photo and biography of Sean Decatur, chair and associate professor of chemistry. Sixty pages later, one encounters a profile of our internationally renowned alumna, Lila M. Gierasch '70, head of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who, like Sean, studies issues related to the protein folding problem (how the amino acid sequence in a protein determines its three-dimensional structure). The book makes any number of interesting connections made to daily life. I immediately turned to the section entitled "Why Is It So Hard to Lose Weight?" where I learned that it is a snap for the body to turn carbohydrates into fat, but that it can't turn fats back into carbohydrates (something about two carbon atoms being lost in the citric acid cycle). In Mary's words, "All roads lead to fat . . . " Similar sections are devoted to lupus, the real story on omega-3 fatty acids, DNA chips, ketosis and weight loss, aspartame, butter vs. margarine, and much, much more. The visual lushness of the book combined with the limpid, pithy, direct writing (none of those dreadful passive-voice constructions here) make for a glorious romp through one of the youngest and most active fields of current research.

Associate Director of Communications Kevin McCaffrey's novel Nightmare Therapy, which appeared in August 2002 with Xlibris Corporation, is now available from online booksellers including Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble (bn.com). If you have a latent rapport with science fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, or Stephen King, you will love it. The story takes place in a totally dysfunctional society in the near future and centers on a support group in which the members' nightmares start to come to life. There are some unforgettably demented images in the book: cancer cells as little Richard Simmons (that peppy diet guy) spreading their vapid message to normal people/cells (and American mass culture as cancer); a restaurant called Scraps at which diners choose reheated celebrity leftovers flash-frozen and shipped to Scraps from restaurants around the country. Thus, you could order, say, the uneaten half of George W.'s burrito shipped straight from his favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. To quote Kevin, "Nightmare Therapy moves at a rapid pace through a drug-twisted world of feminist anti-car terrorists, homicidal children, political egomania, unwholesome Francophilia, and occasional–and wholly gratuitous–inundations of bodily fluids and other sickening effluvia." It's a great read.

The Modern Language Association has just published a pair of books, one a new edition of Adolphe Belot's novel Mademoiselle Giraud, Ma Femme, edited with a critical introduction by Associate Professor of French Christopher Rivers, the other Chris's translation Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife. Belot's novel originally appeared in serialized form in 1869 but was canceled because of the public furor over its content. It was a huge success when published as a book a year later, ultimately being reprinted 30 times, much to the disgust of critics. (Flaubert lamented the lunacy of a society in which Belot outsold Zola by a factor of four in one-third the time.) Chris discusses briefly the problem of translating a page-turner that is more than a century old. He succeeds brilliantly–you simply cannot put it down. If you like light (a.k.a. trashy) reading, Belot's novel will enthrall you. It has it all: innocence, transgression, homophobia, and suspense. If you read it before reading Chris's preface (or, for that matter, Zola's preface, which Chris also translates), you can clock how long it takes you to figure out what is really going on. If you disdain lowbrow potboilers, then read Chris's introductory essay first. Either way, the preface offers a fine example of how a close reading of another society's best-sellers says much about the society. The pair of books would be a fabulous gift for a student of French (or a French-speaking student of English); comparing the French original and its translation teaches much about the translator's art.

Lester Senechal, Professor of Mathematics on the John Stewart Kennedy Foundation, has translated into English (from Russian) and edited a monograph by A. Yu. Kitaev, A. H. Shen, and M. N. Vyalyi entitled Classical and Quantum Computation. The book, which appeared this month under the imprint of the American Mathematical Society, is the most lucid account to date of the theory of quantum computation. This theory is arguably the most exciting scientific development of the last decade. The book begins with a quick explanation of the classical theory of computing, which is the theory behind how all known computers, including Apples and PCs and hand calculators, work. Classically, one thinks of information as stored in a string of zeros and ones. The information is processed, that is, converted to other information, by Turing machines, which are conceptual devices for operating on strings of zeros and ones to produce other strings of zeros and ones. If you can write a procedure or algorithm as a Turing machine, then you can build electronic circuits (or lots of other physical devices) that carry out the procedure or algorithm. A (classical) computer is a flexible device that allows one to quickly create different Turing machines. Intense theoretical work over the last few years has resulted in a theory of quantum computation, in which information is stored in quantum states, which are sums of strings of zeros and ones with complex numbers as coefficients. One encodes procedures and algorithms in quantum analogues of Turing machines, called quantum circuits (and a quantum computer would be a device that creates and realizes different quantum circuits). One can create quantum circuits that allow one to factor numbers, hence break codes, much faster than any classical computer. One can show that quantum circuits could also be used to actually predict the properties of molecules and crystals and construct microscopic electronic devices of several dozen atoms, tasks that would take too long on classical computers. The trouble is that no one knows how to build physical systems that realize any but the simplest quantum circuits. Feverish attempts are currently under way, but will probably take decades. When they arrive, they will be awesome. If you have any interest in computing, you should read this book. In translating it, Lester has performed a huge service to the mathematical and scientific community.

The Academy Press of Beijing appointed Wen Xing, visiting associate professor of Asian studies, as general editor of its new series Academy Translation Series of International Scholarship in Chinese Studies. Wen's translation of the English language conference proceedings Guodian Laozi: Proceedings of the International Conference, Dartmouth College, May 1998 (S. Allan and C. Williams, eds.) into Chinese is the first volume of the series. The conference proceedings are quite extraordinary. In 1993, a tomb dating to the Warring States period (475-221 bce) was excavated at Guodian near Jingmen in the Hubei province of China. A version of the Laozi (a.k.a. Daode jing, a.k.a. Book of the Dao and Its Virtue), written on bamboo strips and quite unlike the canonical version, was discovered in the tomb. The conference brought together about 30 scholars, of whom Wen Xing was one, from all fields to read through the bamboo-strip Laozi. The proceedings contain background papers and notes of the discussions, arranged thematically, which are absolutely fascinating. Wen Xing contributed a review of the Chinese scholarship on the Guodian texts, most of it previously unknown in the West.

The Rise of the Jazz Art World by Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Paul Lopes has just appeared with Cambridge University Press. Professor of Sociology Richard Moran's book Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair has just appeared with Knopf. Visiting Professor of History Ming Chan's tenth book, Crisis and Transformation in China's Hong Kong, coedited with A. Y. So, appeared in late summer with Hong Kong University Press.

--The October 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The September 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The May 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The April 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The March 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The February 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The December 2001 O'Shea Report more>
--The November 2001 O'Shea Report more>

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