November 2016 Archways

It’s Academic

Oregon Forest. USA.

The Future Forest

For scientists studying climate change, one bright spot in their predictions has been the notion that a warming planet may promote greater growth in many northern forests with a consequent increase in the absorption of carbon dioxide and mitigation of climate change.

Or maybe not, says a new study co-authored by Biology Professor Sydne Record, working with a team from the University of Arizona.

“Our results suggest that society may not be able to confidently rely on northern forests to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions,” Record says. “This finding has implications for calculating global carbon stocks and international agreements on carbon dioxide emissions.”

The prevailing theory—called the boreal greening effect—has posited that trees in high latitudes, where colder temperatures limit growth, will benefit from warmer temperatures and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide. In turn, these thriving boreal forests will then “scrub” more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so goes the idea, hence mitigating the magnitude of climate change.

But the study’s simulations find no evidence for the greenhouse-gas absorbing process of the boreal greening effect.

In fact, some of the predictions are already playing out. Says Margaret Evans, a University of Arizona professor and one of the study’s co-authors, “In Alaska, where trees have been projected to respond positively to warming temperatures under the boreal greening effect, we see that trees are now responding negatively instead.”

The study, which appeared in the journal Ecology Letters, combines future climate model projections, historic tree-ring records from across North America, and an analysis of how the growth rates of trees may respond to a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


Wisdom Herself

Catherine Conybeare has a confession to make: “The first time I read the Confessions, I was both surprised and rather bored.”

Augustinus_1But that was some time ago, and since then, Conybeare has taken such a lively interest in “one of the most thoroughly original and absorbing books of Western culture” that it is the centerpiece of her most recent book. With The Routledge Guide to Augustine’s Confessions, Conybeare writes for the first-time reader, someone much like her earlier, perplexed self.

In the three sections at the heart of the Guide, Conybeare, chair of the Greek, Latin and Classical Studies department, deals with the philosophical/theological meanings of the text. Rather than providing a chapter-by-chapter introduction, she considers the larger themes that preoccupy Augustine: language; creation and the sensible world; and memory, time, and the self.

Conybeare attends closely to the language of the Confessions, its sound and rhythms. Shunning the elegant rhetoric so valued by his contemporaries, Augustine is instead inspired by the Bible’s “lowly” style. “The language of the Bible is Augustine’s lodestar,” Conybeare writes. “With it, he hopes to draw multitudes to follow in his footsteps: to turn to God.”

Although by no means biographical, the Guide situates Augustine’s ideas firmly in his life story, particularly his early flirtation with Manichaeism, a contemporary religion that envisioned a universe divided between light and darkness, each material, each constantly at war with the other. Throughout the Confessions, Conybeare sees evidence of Augustine’s repudiation of that early faith, no more so than in his discussion of the sensible world of creation. “He never forgets that he is a sensual, embodied being,” she writes, and he believes, that divine love “cannot be achieved in this life without taking account of the body.”

It is precisely that awareness that leaves him vulnerable to the Manichaean heresy. In the famous episode of the ascent at Ostia, Augustine faces that challenge as he contemplates the transcendent nature of the divine. There, Augustine and his mother, Monnica, strain “through the sensual world and beyond their own minds to ‘Wisdom herself.’… Then, ‘sighing and unsatisfied,’ they fall back, and return to their finite earthly lives, after their perfect glimpse of infinity.”

Conybeare calls the ascent at Ostia “the greatest moment of spiritual elation in the Confessions.” But unlike so many descriptions of the ecstatic experience, this one takes place in the company of another soul, and, Conybeare points out, it is characteristic of Augustine’s thought that the individual is ever and always in community with others.

The glimpse of the transcendent that mother and son experience at Ostia points to the third idea that occupies the Guide. Like many before and after him, Augustine is mystified by time: “Past time and future time by definition do not exist,” Conybeare explains, “one because it has already gone, the other because it has not yet arrived….

We can sub-divide the present until it is almost at its vanishing point, and still not feel that we have pinned down an instant of time that we can measure or describe. Time ‘tends to non-being’; it is always slipping away.”

For Augustine, that fragmented experience of time is a condition of human life. Speaking of God, he writes, “Your years are a single day, and this day of yours is not a daily recurrence, but a simple ‘Today,’ because Today does not give way to tomorrow, nor follow yesterday.”


untitledBaby Talk: To help parents and practitioners identify possible language delays in children ages 18-35 months, Leslie Rescorla (Psychology) created the Language Development Survey, with 310 words in 14 categories. Asked by a reporter for her list of the Top 25, Rescorla responded with mommy, daddy baby, milk, juice, hello, ball, yes, no, dog, cat, nose, eye, banana, cookie, car, hot, thank you, bath, shoe, hat, book, allgone, more, and byebye. Today a staple of popular media, the Top 25 has made an appearance in I Can Sing in English, a Polish children’s book. Written by Terence Clark-Ward, who directs the Queen School of English in Poland, the book and accompanying CD integrates the top-25 English words into 20 original songs that children can sing along with.

This Old House: In 1807, Philadelphia merchant William Waln hired Benjamin Henry Latrobe to build his mansion. The building is long gone—it was demolished in 1847—but that hasn’t stopped the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with help from Jeffrey Cohen (Cities), from bringing it back to life in the exhibition Classical Splendor. Says Cohen: “The Waln House is curious in that it was a really well-known house but a really mysterious house. There was only one watercolor that showed us what the outside looked like.” Drawing on that source, along with letters and fire-insurance surveys, Cohen and others made their best effort to reconstruct the floor plan and devise a fly-through video simulation.

Greening Philly: Victor Donnay (Math) got the nod for his contributions to GreenFutures, the Philadelphia School District’s sustainability plan. He was cited for his “capacity building” help in recruiting BMC students to carry out sustainability analyses for the district’s sustainability office.

The Natural Look: When the Washington Post wants answers, it turns to Michelle Francl (Chemistry). Asked in a recent article How “natural” are natural hair dyes? Francl replied, “To take the color out of your hair and put new color or to cover up the color is a nasty chemical process.” If you want a natural dye, she advises using henna, mineral powders, or lemon juice with sun exposure.

Keeping It Real: Homay King (History of Art) teamed up with Penn Art Historian Kaja Silverman on an exhibition of work by Victor Burgin, the conceptual artist and theorist of the still and moving image. The show, at Philadelphia’s Slought Foundation, featured three videos and a photo series exploring the relationship between real and virtual spaces.

Pyramid Theory: Speaking to the Canadian Broadcasting System recently, Clark McCauley (Psychology) laid out his thinking about
de-radicalizing potential terrorists. “‘I used to think that radical thought and radical action were part of the same continuum,’ said McCauley, ‘like a pyramid with radical ideas at the bottom and radical action at the top. But I came around to seeing it quite differently.’ McCauley now pictures two separate pyramids, one of thought and one of action, with the most radicalized people at the top of each. Some climb to the very top of the first pyramid without ever jumping to the second. Others will quickly move to violent action without even waiting to absorb the whole radical ideology.”

Girl Power: In recognition of the feminist tenor of her scholarship, Provost Mary Osirim has received the Feminist Lecturer Award from Sociologists for Women in Society. In accepting the award, Osirim is committing to speak at two colleges “bereft of the resources needed to invite guest speakers and/or characterized by hostility to feminist scholarship.”

The Dictator or the Democrat? In his latest book, Dictators, Democrats and Development in Southeast Asia, Michael Rock (Economics) examines how dictators and democrats in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand built the political coalitions to sustain high growth. Rock demonstrates that, after democratizing, all three countries enjoyed the same scale of economic growth as during their heyday of authoritarianism. And, in looking at Indonesia and Malaysia, he reveals how majority Muslim countries can both succeed at development and sustain democracy.

Author, Author: “My parents weren’t the anachronisms that the Sonnensteins were, but they were products of the fifties: men went to work and women worked out the socializing.” So writes Dan Torday (Creative Writing) in A Dispatch from Mt. Moriah, recently selected as one of the notable stories in this year’s Best American Short Stories 2016 by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz.

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