Visiting Writer Brings Muslim History to Life

On February 4, award-winning novelist and UC Riverside professor Laila Lalami visited Caltech as part of the writer-in-residence program. The program, which is supported by the James Michelin Distinguished Visitors program, was formally established in 2014 in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences to bring professional writers to Caltech for a brief visit.

"The program brings novelists, essayists, poets, and short story writers to share their work with Caltech and the community," says Dehn Gilmore, professor of English and the program's coordinator. "Invitations are made by the suggestion of the faculty."

Lalami gave a public lecture titled "Muslims in America: A Forgotten History." Born and raised in Morocco, she explores questions of belonging, displacement, history, and identity in past and present Arab worlds. During the lecture she discussed the place of Muslims as individuals throughout American history, and read passages from her historical novel, The Moor's Account. The Pulitzer Prize–nominated story is based on the experiences of the first black explorer of America, Mustafa al-Zamori.

"Muslims have a very rich, long history in the U.S.," Lalami said. "And yet this history has been largely unexplored. What's erased from history often results in invisibility for those people, in the present."

In addition to the public talk, Lalani visited the course Perspectives on History through German Literature. Taught by Caltech professor of social science history Tracy Dennison, it examines 19th-century German history through literature from that period.

"The students were very interested to speak to Dr. Lalami about the interplay between fact and fiction in literary works set in past societies," Dennison says. "They were also interested in her thoughts on various aspects of the writing process—from the initial idea for a novel, to the editing process, to keeping distractions at bay while at the computer."

In the spring term, the program will welcome poet, novelist, and professor Ciaran Carson to campus in conjunction with the Irish literature class taught by Caltech professor of English Kevin Gilmartin. Carson will give a public talk and reading on May 17.

Home Page Title: 
Visiting Writer Brings Muslim History to Life
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
In Our Community
Exclude from Home Page: 

Social Hormone Promotes Cooperation in Risky Situations

A hormone implicated in monogamy and aggression in animals also promotes trust and cooperation in humans in risky situations, Caltech researchers say.

The findings, published the week of February 8 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could prove useful for helping groups cooperate beneficially.

Research in rodents shows the hormone arginine vasopressin (AVP) promotes monogamous pair bonding and parental behavior, but also aggression in males. "Part of the dark side of monogamy is that an AVP-pumped-up male is more likely to behave aggressively toward intruders," says study coauthor Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech.

In the new study, Camerer and his team tested the hypothesis that AVP might also play a role in social bonding in people and could help explain our species' cooperative tendencies. "One of the reasons humans rule the world rather than apes is that we do things that require a great deal of trust. We cooperate in large-scale groups," Camerer says. "Where does that come from? Is it something like pair bonding but just scaled up? And if it is, what role does AVP play?"

To investigate these questions, Camerer and his colleagues administered a nasal spray containing AVP or a hormone-free nasal spray (a placebo) to 59 male volunteers, aged 19 to 32 years old. Pairs of subjects then used computers to play a so-called assurance game in which they had to choose whether or not to cooperate with another player; "assurance" comes from the fact that subjects will take a risky action if they are sufficiently assured that others will, too. When they cooperated, both players received more points than they would have if they did not mutually cooperate. If one player chose not to cooperate but his partner made the opposite decision, the non-cooperative player received an intermediate payoff whereas the cooperative player received nothing.

"The game is designed to mimic situations in which people are willing to help, but only if everyone else helps too," Camerer says. "Think of pitching in on a team project, or of a group of soldiers rushing the enemy. If a critical mass cooperates, then everyone else should go along. Thus it is in your best interest to help only if enough others do."

To help ensure the players were engaged, the points they accumulated were converted into actual money at the end of the game (usually around $20).

The experiment showed that players who received AVP before the game were significantly more likely to cooperate than those who received the placebo. "By targeting a specific hormonal system in the human brain, we could manipulate people's willingness to cooperate and help them do better," says Gideon Nave, a graduate student in Camerer's lab and a coauthor on the study.

Using control experiments, the researchers were also able to rule out other explanations for why the subjects were cooperating. For example, one possibility is that AVP was increasing the subjects' appetite for risks. Alternatively, the administered hormone might be amplifying their altruistic tendencies, so that they just wanted to help other people regardless of the risk to themselves.

"We found that when we asked them, 'Do you want to just give some money to this stranger?' they don't do it," Camerer says. "So AVP seems to be quite specialized to this particular type of risky cooperation."

To better understand the neural mechanism underlying AVP's effect on risky cooperation, the researchers conducted the same experiment but this time had subjects—a separate group of 34 men—play the game while their brains were being imaged using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The scans indicated that after AVP administration, a part of the brain's reward system known as the ventral pallidum—a region that is known to have an abundance of AVP receptors—showed a change in neural activity when the players decided to cooperate.

"That was very encouraging, because it showed that the hormone is activating a part of the brain that is known to be rich in AVP receptors," Camerer says.

Could the discovery that AVP increases the likelihood of risky cooperation have practical applications and be used, for example, to engender trust and foster cooperation in groups? Perhaps.

"You could imagine a high-stakes situation, such as a military operation, in which people have to trust each other to all do something difficult and it fails if anyone chickens out," Camerer says. "In that case, you might want to administer AVP to help ensure that everyone is cooperative."

In addition to Camerer and Nave, other coauthors on the paper, "Vasopressin increases human risky cooperative behavior," include Claudia Brunnlieb, Stephan Schosser, and Bodo Vogt of the University of Magdeburg and Thomas Münte and Marcus Heldmann at the University of Lübeck in Germany. The research was funded by a special grant of the Center for Behavioral Brain Sciences and by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. 

Home Page Title: 
Social Hormone Promotes Cooperation
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
Research News
Teaser Image: 
Exclude from Home Page: 
Home Page Summary: 
A hormone implicated in monogamy and aggression in animals also promotes trust and cooperation in humans in risky situations, Caltech researchers say.

Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences Celebrates 50th Anniversary

"Life is not confined to equations and laboratory experiments." So wrote Hallett Smith, chairman of Caltech's Division of the Humanities, in a 1966 letter addressed to Arnold Beckman, then president of the Institute's board of trustees. In the letter, Smith described his faculty's hopes for a new building that would be constructed to house not only the humanists, but also the growing ranks of social scientists on campus. He wrote about the need for an appropriate setting for "courses focusing on the enormously complex problems of being a man—a creature who feels and dreams, loves and hates, hopes and despairs."

It would have been difficult for Smith to have anticipated then how much the faculty members in the humanities and social sciences at Caltech today would work with and rely on equations and experiments, but the sentiment behind his words holds true. Today's Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) is intensely focused on probing the mysteries of the human experience. And Caltech continues to place great importance on the breadth of its students' educations, requiring undergraduates to take almost a quarter of their required units in the humanities and social sciences.

When Smith wrote his letter, the division was just beginning a transformation. The first step in that transformation had been to include the social scientists, and especially to hire economists and political scientists. In fact, it was that same year, 1966, that "Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences" first appeared in Caltech's catalog. Prior to that, and dating back to 1926, when the Institute introduced divisions as an organizational structure, there had been only the Division of the Humanities.

That means this year marks the 50th anniversary of HSS as such. Throughout 2016, the division will be celebrating this anniversary with a lecture series, inviting distinguished HSS alumni and faculty members—both past and present—to speak about their work and the impact that their time at Caltech has had on their careers. All of the lectures will take place in Baxter Lecture Hall, in the building on campus that Smith and his faculty moved into in 1971—the Donald E. Baxter, MD, Hall of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

"The lecture series is a bit of a celebration, a bit of a look back, and also a time to consider where we, as a division, want to be going," says Jean-Laurent Rosenthal (PhD '88), HSS chair and the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics.

The first lecture will take place Thursday, January 28, at 5 p.m. Daniel Kevles, Yale University's Stanley Woodward Professor of History, Emeritus, and Caltech's J. O. and Juliette Koepfli Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, will deliver a talk titled "Between the Archives and the Athenaeum: Caltech as Living History." Rosenthal notes that Kevles was "instrumental in creating history of science as it exists at Caltech today."

Over the last year, HSS has been compiling a history of research that the division has conducted since 1966. "We have accomplished a lot over the last half century," says Rosenthal. "And that work is quite different from what happened here before."

He explains that by the time Baxter Hall was dedicated in 1971, the division had a plan in place to continue its own transformation. All faculty would be expected not only to excel as instructors but also to conduct research. "Essentially they decided that all faculty at Caltech should be research scholars," says Rosenthal.

In the decades since, HSS has made its mark as a division both of researchers and of teachers. On the social sciences side, the division's scholars have pioneered experimental economics, helped develop the field of political economy, and are now leading the way in the fields of behavioral and social neuroscience. In the humanities, among other accomplishments, the Princeton University Press moved the Einstein Papers Project to Caltech in 2000, researchers have introduced new forms of historical narrative, and the division is a leader in the history and philosophy of science and technology.

Looking forward, Rosenthal emphasizes the importance of collaboration and interdisciplinary work for HSS's researchers. And he says there is a desire to have closer interaction between faculty members on campus and researchers at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. In that area, he says, a new program called the Caltech-Huntington Humanities Collaborations (CHHC) will build upon the success of the Materialities, Texts, and Images multidisciplinary program that started in 2013 to encourage research that revolves around material artifacts like those housed at The Huntington.

In addition to the growth of HSS research programs, Rosenthal notes that the division has a responsibility to Caltech students "to give them a breadth of experience." Besides offering dozens of courses in diverse fields, the division now offers seven undergraduate options—business, economics, and management; economics; English; history; history and philosophy of science; philosophy; and political science. It was not until 1965 that Caltech began offering bachelor of science degrees in the humanities—in history, English, or economics. HSS has PhD options in social science as well as behavioral and social neuroscience. Rosenthal adds, "Beyond the coursework, we also provide experience in areas of the human endeavor that students won't encounter in the physical and life sciences or in engineering."

"HSS has a variety of missions," he says. "We have made tremendous strides in the last 50 years. The goal is to keep becoming better."

Writer: 
Kimm Fesenmaier
Home Page Title: 
HSS Celebrates 50th Anniversary
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
In Our Community
Exclude from Home Page: 
Home Page Summary: 
The division will mark the anniversary with a lecture series. The first lecture will take place on Thursday, January 28.
Friday, January 29, 2016
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Course Ombudsperson Training, Winter 2016

Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Beckman Institute Auditorium – Beckman Institute

"Words Are Obsolete": Explaining and Understanding in the Dynamic Medium

Hard Work Meets Hard Knocks: Caltech's SUSI Program

Caltech's students are familiar with hard work. Mastering the intricacies of quantum physics, biochemistry, and other demanding fields of study can be difficult. Being able to apply this hard-won education to make an impact in the business environment outside of academia can be equally challenging—and is not a lesson typically taught inside an academic environment. The Summer Undergraduate Startup Internship program (SUSI) is designed to bridge this gap by placing talented undergraduates in their first or second summer at Caltech into 10-week internships in real-world entrepreneurial environments.

The board of Caltech's Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences worked with Caltech professors and internal departments such as the Career Development Center (CDC) to develop SUSI. The goal was to identify small startup companies that could offer undergraduates the opportunity to see firsthand how bold ideas can be translated into successful businesses or products.

"This was an experiment that has been very successful," says Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS). "Startups, as an idea, are glamorous, but they are also a lot of work. Failure rates are high, and it is a very demanding environment in which you might want some experience before deciding that it's right for you."

"Caltech undergraduates have an excellent range of summer internship opportunities outside of traditional research labs, and many of these positions pay well and come with housing subsidies," says Michael Ewens, an associate professor of finance and entrepreneurship and one of SUSI's creators. "Startups that want to hire our undergraduates as interns often cannot compete with those offerings. The SUSI program steps in to provide a salary and housing supplement to make startup internships a possibility. This allows students to learn about startups while working inside them wearing a variety of hats."

Ewens recruited firms like Idealab, a local tech incubator, and other Pasadena-based startups to participate in the program. "We identified local startups that were associated with faculty and also through contacts at local small-business incubators and the board members of the Linde Institute," he says. "Next, we screened the potential internships to insure that students would be given substantive challenges rather than narrow tasks such as programming and created a website to advertise the positions to Caltech undergraduates. Finally, we placed those students who were selected with companies that were a good fit for their skills and potential."

For this year's inaugural round of SUSI internships, five undergraduates were placed with local companies. Mentors—Caltech faculty or staff—were assigned to each student.

"It was a great experience," says Phillip An, a sophomore majoring in computer science and economics, of his SUSI placement in Idealab, started by Caltech alumnus and current trustee Bill Gross (BS '81). Idealab typically includes about 20 startups working in a supportive and structured environment conducive to success for new small companies.

"In a previous internship, I headed U.S. business development at a startup cofounded by a Caltech alum," An says. "At Idealab, I had the opportunity to start and run a real company. In this experience, I was able to rotate through a variety of functions including product design, project management, raising venture capital funding, and actually reaching out to and interacting with our customers. My tenure at Idealab seemed like a whirlwind, engendering opportunities to get my hands dirty in product management, software engineering, and mobile app creation, to name just a few. I believe this program has given me opportunities few undergraduate students can experience."

SUSI combines the strengths of HSS, the Linde Institute, Caltech's Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships, the CDC, and the Entrepreneurship Club. The Linde Institute provides conduits to startup businesses through its board members. The institute, a hub for interdisciplinary research in business and economics, provided the funding to support the students during their internships.

Ewens is still evaluating the results of the first year of SUSI internships. Tracking the progress of the participants post-graduation helps refine future efforts. But it is clear, he says, that the program worked as planned. "It's still early in the process, but I think the students were provided a unique opportunity to explore the activity of an entrepreneurial firm," he says.

Ewens notes that placing students in the real-world environment of a startup helps them appreciate the broad number of options that they have as Caltech graduates. "I often tell students that a big part of college is simply figuring out what they do not want to do in life," he says. "They can only achieve this goal by trying out as many opportunities as possible while still in school. My hope is that SUSI can enable this for a select group of entrepreneurially inclined students each year."

Home Page Title: 
Hard Work Meets Hard Knocks
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
In Our Community
Exclude from Home Page: 
Home Page Summary: 
The Summer Undergraduate Startup Internship program (SUSI) places undergrads into internships in real-world entrepreneurial environments.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Dabney Hall, Lounge – Dabney Hall

James Michelin Seminar: Ciaran Carson Reading

15 for 2015: The Year in Research News at Caltech

The year 2015 proved to be another groundbreaking year for research at Caltech. From seeing quantum motion, to reconfiguring jellyfish limbs, to measuring stellar magnetic fields, researchers continued to ask and answer the deepest scientific questions.

In case you missed any of them, here are 15 stories highlighting a few of the discoveries, methods, and technologies that came to life at Caltech in 2015.

 

 

Home Page Title: 
15 for 2015: The Year in Research News at Caltech
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
Research News
Exclude from Home Page: 
Home Page Summary: 
Here are 15 stories highlighting a few of the discoveries, methods, and technologies that came to life at Caltech in 2015.

15 for 2015: The Year in Research News at Caltech

Frontpage Title: 
15 for 2015: The Year in Research News at Caltech
Slideshow: 
Credit: K.Batygin/Caltech

New Research Suggests Solar System May Have Once Harbored Super-Earths

Thanks to recent surveys of exoplanets—planets in solar systems other than our own—we know that most planetary systems typically have one or more super-Earths (planets that are substantially more massive than Earth but less massive than Neptune) orbiting closer to their suns than Mercury does. In March, researchers showed that our own solar system may have once had these super-Earths, but they were destroyed by Jupiter's inward and outward migration through the solar system. This migration would have gravitationally flung small planetesimals through the solar system, setting off chains of collisions that would push any interior planets into the sun.
Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech and the Hoelz Laboratory/Caltech

Caltech Biochemists Shed Light on Cellular Mystery

The nuclear pore complex (NPC) is an intricate portal linking the cytoplasm of a cell to its nucleus. It is made up of many copies of about 34 different proteins. Around 2,000 NPCs are embedded in the nuclear envelope of a single human cell and each NPC shuttles hundreds of macromolecules of different shapes and sizes between the cytoplasm and nucleus. In February, Caltech biochemists determined the structure of a significant portion of the NPC called the outer rings; in August, the same group solved the structure of the pore's inner ring. Understanding the structure of the NPC could lead to new classes of cancer drugs as well as antiviral medicines.
Credit: iStockphoto

Research Suggests Brain's Melatonin May Trigger Sleep

For decades, supplemental melatonin has been sold over the counter as a sleep aid despite the absence of scientific evidence proving its effectiveness. Few studies have investigated melatonin produced naturally in the human body. This March, Caltech researchers studying zebrafish—animals that, like humans, are awake during the day and asleep at night—determined that the melatonin hormone does help the body fall asleep and stay asleep. Specifically, they found that zebrafish larvae that could not produce melatonin slept for only half as long as normal larvae.
Credit: Gregg Hallinan/Caltech

Advances in Radio Astronomy

In May, a new radio telescope array called the Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array (OV-LWA) saw its first light. Developed by a consortium led by Caltech, the OV-LWA has the ability to image simultaneously the entire sky at radio wavelengths with unmatched speed, helping astronomers to search for objects and phenomena that pulse, flicker, flare, or explode.

In July, Caltech researchers used both radio and optical telescopes to observe a brown dwarf located 20 light-years away and found that these so-called failed stars host powerful auroras near their magnetic poles.
Credit: Michael Abrams and Ty Basinger

Injured Jellyfish Seek to Regain Symmetry

Some kinds of animals can regrow lost limbs and body parts, but moon jellyfish have a different strategy. In June, Caltech researchers reported that the star-shaped eight-armed moon jellyfish rearranges itself when injured to maintain symmetry. It is hypothesized that the rearrangement helps to preserve the jellyfish's propulsion mechanism.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Geologists Characterize Nepal Earthquake

In April, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked Nepal. While the damage was extensive, it was not as severe as many geologists predicted. This year, a Caltech team of geologists used satellite radar imaging data and measurements from seismic instruments in Nepal to create models of fault rupture and ground movement. They found that the quake ruptured only a small fraction of the "locked" tectonic plate and that there is still the potential for the locked portion to produce a large earthquake.
Credit: Caltech/JPL

New Polymer Creates Safer Fuels

Plane crashes cause devastating damage, but this damage is often exacerbated by the highly explosive nature of jet fuel. This October, researchers at Caltech and JPL discovered a polymeric fuel additive that can reduce the intensity of postimpact explosions that occur during accidents and crashes. Preliminary results show that the additive can provide this benefit without adversely affecting fuel performance. The polymer works by inhibiting "misting"—the process that causes fuel to rapidly disperse and easily catch fire—under crash conditions.
Credit: Spencer Kellis/Caltech

Controlling a Robotic Arm with a Patient's Intentions

When you reach for a glass of water, you do not consciously think about moving your arm muscles or grasping with your fingers—you think about the goal of the movement. This May, by implanting neural prosthetic devices into the posterior parietal cortex (PCC)—the region of the brain that governs intentions for movement—rather than the motor cortex, which controls movement, Caltech researchers enabled a paralyzed patient to more smoothly and naturally control a prosthetic limb. In November, the researchers showed that there are individual neurons in the PPC that encode for entire hand shapes, such as those used for grasping or gesturing.

 

Caltech Scientists Develop Cool Process to Make Better Graphene

Graphene is an ultrastrong and conductive material made of a single layer of carbon atoms. While it is a promising material for scientific and engineering advances, manufacturing it on an industrially relevant scale has proven to be impractical, requiring temperatures of around 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and long periods of time. A new technique invented at Caltech allows the speedy production of graphene—in just a few minutes—at room temperatures. The technique also produces graphene that is stronger, smoother, and more electrically conductive than normally produced synthetic graphene.
Credit: Rafael A. García (SAp CEA), Kyle Augustson (HAO), Jim Fuller (Caltech) & Gabriel Pérez (SMM, IAC), Photograph from AIA/SDO

Astronomers Peer Inside Stars, Finding Giant Magnets

Before this October, astronomers have only been able to study the magnetic fields of stars on the stellar surfaces. Now, using a technique called asteroseismology, scientists were able to probe the fusion-powered hearts of dozens of red giants (stars that are evolved versions of our sun) to calculate the magnetic field strengths inside those stars. They found that the internal magnetic fields of the red giants were as much as 10 million times stronger than Earth's magnetic field. Magnetic fields play a key role in the interior rotation rate of stars, which has a dramatic effect on how the stars evolve.
Credit: Chan Lei and Keith Schwab/Caltech

Seeing Quantum Motion

To the casual observer, an object at rest is just that—at rest, motionless. But on the subatomic scale, the object is most certainly in motion—quantum mechanical motion. Quantum motion, or noise, is ever-present in nature, and in August, Caltech researchers discovered how to observe and manipulate that motion in a small device. By creating what they called a "quantum squeezed state," they were able to periodically reduce the quantum fluctuations of the device. The ability to control quantum noise could one day be used to improve the precision of very sensitive measurements.
Credit: Ali Hajimiri/Caltech

New Camera Chip Provides Superfine 3-D Resolution

3-D printing can produce a wide array of objects in relatively little time, but first the printer needs to have a blueprint of what to print. The blueprints are provided by 3-D cameras, which scan objects and create models for the printer. Caltech researchers have now developed a 3-D camera that produces the highest depth-measurement accuracy of any similar device, allowing it to deliver replicas of an object to be 3-D printed within microns of similarity to the original object. In addition, the camera, known as a nanophotonic coherent imager, is inexpensive and small.
Credit: Image provided courtesy of Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis; artwork by Darius Siwek.

One Step Closer to Artificial Photosynthesis and 'Solar Fuels'

Plants are masters of photosynthesis—the process of turning carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water into oxygen and sugar. Inspired by this natural and energy-efficient process, Caltech researchers have created an "artificial leaf" that takes in CO2, sunlight, and water to produce hydrogen fuels. This solar-powered system, one researcher says, shatters all of the combined safety, performance, and stability records for artificial leaf technology by factors of 5 to 10 or more.
Credit: Santiago Lombeyda and Robin Betz

Potassium Salt Outperforms Precious Metals As a Catalyst

Rare precious metals have been the standard catalyst for the formation of carbon-silicon bonds, a process crucial to the synthesis of a host of products from new medicines to advanced materials. However, they are expensive, inefficient, and produce toxic waste byproducts. This February, Caltech researchers discovered a much more sustainable catalyst in the form of a simple potassium salt that is one of the most abundant metals on Earth and thousands of times less expensive than other commonly used catalysts. In addition, the potassium salt is much more effective at running challenging chemical reactions than state-of-the-art precious metal complexes.
Credit: Qi Zhao/National University of Singapore

Probing the Mysterious Perceptual World of Autism

The way in which people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) perceive the world is unique. It has been a long-standing belief that people with ASD often miss facial cues, contributing to impaired social interaction. In a study published in October, Caltech researchers showed 700 images to 39 subjects and found that people with ASD pay closer attention to simple edges and patterns in images than to the faces of people. The study also found that subjects were strongly attracted to the center of images—regardless of what was placed there—and to differences in color and contrast rather than facial features. These findings may help doctors diagnose and more effectively treat the different forms of autism.
Body: 

The year 2015 proved to be another groundbreaking year for research at Caltech. From seeing quantum motion, to reconfiguring jellyfish limbs, to measuring stellar magnetic fields, researchers continued to ask and answer the deepest scientific questions.

In case you missed any of them, here are 15 stories highlighting a few of the discoveries, methods, and technologies that came to life at Caltech in 2015.

Written by Lori Dajose

Exclude from News Hub: 
Yes

Now and Then in American Literature

It has been more than a decade since a few curious clocks and strange verbs in an Edgar Allan Poe novel piqued Cindy Weinstein's interest. In the years since, Weinstein, professor of English and a vice provost at Caltech, examined and analyzed novels spanning three centuries of American literature, looking for instances of inconsistent references to time and tense, a kind of temporal uncertainty. She combined her findings into her newest book, Time, Tense, and American Literature: When Is Now?

What got you interested in this particular theme of time in American literature?

It started 14 years ago. I was reading Edgar Allan Poe's only novel—The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket—and I noticed many odd references to clocks and time. Poe's story kept bringing up this broken watch and a chronometer that eventually gets thrown into the ocean; the narrator can't seem to keep track of what time it is. I became really interested in what Poe was trying to do with these clocks and with grammatical tense—he kept vacillating between the past and present. Why was he doing that?

My curiosity about this temporal phenomenon took me through many rereadings of books throughout American literature, paying attention to words and their meanings, repetitions, and echoes. It resulted in my book.

Tell us about your book.

My book examines five novels—which span from a precursor to Poe in Charles Brockden Brown's 18th-century Edgar Huntly to Edward P. Jones's 21st-century novel The Known World—that create and develop what I'm calling "tempo(e)rality"—it's a play on "temporality" and "Poe." Tempo(e)rality is the term I use to describe novels whose hold on sequence is wobbly. I explain it like this in the book: What happens first, what happens second, what is before and what is after are often difficult to discern, and, as a consequence, tense, particularly the past tense, loses its position as a temporal anchor.

Where does tempo(e)rality manifest in these novels?

I found that the concept of tempo(e)rality is embedded both at the level of the sentence, in using words like "when," "now," "first," "latter," and "before," and within a larger, historical context—many of the stories take place during the cultural and political upheaval surrounding events like the founding of the nation and the Civil War.

Each novel is located in a certain time period that is often registered by a date or dates, and yet the language used in the story is all over the place with respect to time. Their narratives cascade from past to present to future to conditional. I'm demonstrating that this is a thread that runs throughout three centuries of American literature—each of the books I discuss are anchored in a particular time and yet are temporally afloat.

Can you give an example of tempo(e)rality?

In Edgar Huntly, the main character, Edgar, is telling a story. He's constantly using phrases such as "at length," "once more," or "in a moment" and words such as "now," "presently," "before," "former," or "meanwhile"—announcing to the reader that he's got control over time. He appears to know what has happened before and what has happened after. But that temporal certainty vanishes as his retrospective narration of past events gets confused with his telling of them. He can't keep track of the difference between events in the past and those in the present, and that gets registered in inconsistencies of tense.

Was there anything that surprised you in the course of developing your interpretation?

Yes. On one level, there was the fact that the characters in individual texts were making remarks about tense to each other. For example, there's a moment in The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, a popular 19th-century writer, where one character is talking about a character that is dead, and she remarks to her friend, "I wonder what he would have thought?" And her friend says, "Why put any 'would' in that sentence?"

But the thing that really shocked me—I had to put the book down and go take a walk—was when I was reading Henry James's The Golden Bowl. The book could not be more different from a Poe novel, thematically and stylistically. And yet, in the first few pages, the exact Poe novel that I had been studying, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, is referenced! I just thought, "What the heck is Poe doing in this James novel? Why is this character thinking about him?" Suddenly these books were referring to each other. I knew then that this would be the center of my analysis.

Your specialization is in 19th-century literature—what was it like reading novels from before and after that time period?

Well, it was definitely outside of my comfort zone—both scary and liberating! But I just did what I always do—I read and reread each novel so many times, sticky-noting and underlining like crazy. In this way I was able to get a kind of microscale reading that allowed me to examine the minutiae of each novel. And I read a lot of literary criticism in order to clarify my intervention and the stakes of the argument.

So, did you ever find an answer to your question—when is now?

Now is all over the place. Now is gone—the minute I say "now," it's then. The "now" of a narrative can and does, in the novels I discuss, move all over the place. It's relative.

Writer: 
Lori Dajose
Tags: 
Home Page Title: 
Now and Then in American Literature
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
Research News
Exclude from Home Page: 

Pages