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Brainiac

Oprah + Harvard: A bad match?

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Oprah Winfrey.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Oprah Winfrey.

When Harvard announced Monday that Oprah Winfrey will deliver this year’s commencement address, much of the focus was on her celebrity: When two of the world’s biggest brands finally meet, would she overshadow the event?

But a more substantive concern came from longtime Harvard figure Harry Lewis. A professor of computer science who also served as dean of Harvard College, Lewis looked beyond Oprah’s success to the actual ideas touted on her show, and on Monday wrote sharply on his blog that Harvard has no business inviting—and (presumably) awarding an honorary degree to—a “major purveyor of pseudoscience.”

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Oprah has long been criticized for the unscientific health remedies she has promoted over the years. She has provided a prominent platform to Jenny
McCarthy and other leading voices in the anti-childhood-vaccination movement, and has used her influence to promote
scientifically unproven ideas from acupuncture to celebrity diets to vitamin megadosing. In an e-mail to the Globe, Lewis wrote that in honoring her, Harvard “legitimates the nonsense on which she has so successfully built her career and made her fortune.”

Commencement speakers are often subjects of controversy, though in most cases it’s because students object to a businessperson or government official who runs afoul of their politics. In his e-mail, Lewis actually praised the practice of having controversial figures who will spark important debates address graduates (he cited the example of Stanford University choosing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as its commencement speaker this spring). But with Winfrey, he explained, the disqualifying offense lies less with the content of her ideas and more with her semi-magical style of thinking.

“The notion that there is a parallel universe denied by science where wonderful things happen,” Lewis wrote, “is fundamentally at odds with the university’s fundamental commitment to the rule of evidence and reason as opposed to superstition and ignorance.”

Lewis speculated that by choosing the wildly popular Winfrey, Harvard may have been looking for an inoffensive figure who would “excite no protests.” And while Winfrey’s selection has gone over well with graduating seniors, it seems that there may be at least one person picketing in Cambridge this spring.

A ROMAN COMPUTER (OR NOT)

Last week on his blog, computer engineering student Hunter Scott worked through an entertaining thought experiment: Could the ancient Romans have built a computer? At first blush the idea seems preposterous, but Scott demonstrates that, given the right set of plans, it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem.

Scott works through the problem in MacGyver fashion, thinking about the basic building blocks of a computer and all the different ways the Romans could have created them with the materials and technology available to them. He figures, for example, that they lacked the machining precision to build a mechanical computer but could have made a semiconductor-based machine instead, using lead sulfide. He thinks they could have gotten around the need for a transistor by building an “inverter” out of a transformer made from a “square iron ring with wire wrapped around each side.” He even thinks the Romans could have devised a primitive form of computer memory using ferrite.

Overall, Scott thinks the biggest hurdle for the Romans might have been coming up with an electricity source for their ­jerry-built computer. Commenters on his article have raised other concerns, many of them having to do with how bad the Romans were at math. As one armchair technologist put it, “They didn’t have
zero. They had horrible awkward notation in which you cannot even do algebra....The best they could have done is maybe an electric abacus, and I have my doubts there.”

DISEASE, IN BEAUTIFUL GLASS

Infectious diseases are always scary, but they look especially menacing in glass. That’s one impression left by the works of sculptor Luke Jerram, who has created a series of disconcertingly beautiful glass representations of some of the world’s most notorious viruses. Jerram’s initial motivation for the project was practical: He thought it was misleading that viruses are usually depicted in color when in fact they’re smaller than a wavelength of light (and therefore, colorless). Images of Jerram’s sculptures have been used for educational purposes in leading scientific publications; the work is currently on display at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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