Philosophical ruminations.
May 25 1997 3:30 AM

White Is a Color Too

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A front-page article in the Wall Street Journal last month certified that "whiteness studies" has arrived. The burgeoning academic field--informed by both thoughtful race theory and liberal Caucasian guilt--has already spawned hundreds of acolytes; more than 70 books (according to the Center for the Study of White American Culture Inc.'s Web site); subspecialties such as white trash, suburban resentment, and mall ethnography; and a national conference, held at the University of California at Berkeley this April. Among the field's primary objectives is exposing the privileges that come with being white in order to make them go away. The minnesota review's current issue is titled "White Issue." This fall, Transition, a Harvard-based journal of global culture, will publish its own white issue, in which nonwhite scholars will weigh in on whiteness.

Science Wars, the Sequel

For the second time in six years, the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton has vetoed the appointment of a professor of science studies with, apparently, impeccable credentials. Despite the unanimous support of the institute's tiny School of Social Science and a search committee's favorable vote, the institute's director ruled against the appointment of Princeton University Professor M. Norton Wise, co-author of a prize-winning book on 19th century thermodynamics expert Lord Kelvin. Institute defenders say that Wise's scholarship was not up to snuff. Others (including anthropologist Clifford Geertz and historian Joan Scott) accuse their colleagues in chemistry and physics of harboring a bias against anyone who questions science's claims to truth. In 1990, the institute closed its doors to a French sociologist, Bruno Latour, who made declarations such as the following: "To call a claim 'absurd' or knowledge 'accurate' has no more meaning than to call a smuggler trail 'illogical' and a freeway 'logical.' " Wise, unlike Latour, has a Ph.D. in physics, and was perceived as a moderate in the bitter debates that ensued after the Alan Sokal affair last summer. However, he may have damaged his cause when he criticized Sokal defender Steven Weinberg in a letter to the New York Review of Books.

This Side Up

Astronomers have long assumed that the universe is directionally indiscriminate--that is, that it has no top, bottom, up, or down. But in a paper published in April in Physical Review Letters (click here for an abstract) and immediately picked up by the New York Times, two American physicists reported that polarized light moves through space according to a predictable but previously undetected corkscrew pattern. This means, they inferred, that light flows through the universe in one direction, along an identifiable axis of orientation. (Which end we want to call "up" is up to us.) Dr. John Ralston of the University of Kansas and Dr. Borge Nodland of the University of Rochester made this discovery by analyzing radio waves from 160 faraway galaxies. Critics are combing through the data for errors. The findings could have more than just topographical implications. Questions they raise include: Was the Big Bang not a uniform explosion after all? Is the speed of light not always constant?

Still Empty

Harvard remains unable to choose a senior scholar to fill a new chair in Holocaust studies, and has deferred a decision until the fall of 1998. The chair was foisted on reluctant faculty by administrators eager to please wealthy donor Kenneth Lipper (a former deputy mayor of New York and, more recently, a co-writer of the screenplay of City Hall). It took the historians and Jewish-studies professors on the search committee a year and a half to come up with a job description. When the university proposed a temporary solution--hiring UCLA's Saul Friedlander, a distinguished elder statesman in the field--Lipper said no. Of the five top candidates, two are publicly feuding: Christopher Browning and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, scholars whose work has focused on perpetrators and not victims. Goldhagen is a junior professor at Harvard and, reportedly, Lipper's choice for the chair. However, Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, which imputes homicidal anti-Semitic impulses to most of Germany's World War II population, has earned him notoriety and worldwide speaking engagements but not, as yet, tenure.

Penrose Pattern

British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, best known for his contributions to the theory of consciousness, has turned his attention to toilet paper. A year ago, the wife of the Oxford don noticed that the pattern on Kleenex quilted tissue uncannily resembled the Penrose Arrowed Rhombi tilings pattern, which Sir Roger had invented--and copyrighted--in 1974. Penrose licensed the pattern to Pentaplex Ltd., which manufactures puzzles and games, and now both parties are suing Kimberly-Clark, the original makers of Kleenex, for copyright infringement. The plaintiffs claim Penrose's design is distinguished by its aperiodicity (the pattern almost but never quite repeats itself) and its five-fold symmetry (a trait that at the time was thought not to exist in nature but has since been identified in certain crystal formations). As the LondonIndependent put it, "This non-repeating aperiodic pattern was no trivial solution to relieving the boredom of tiling the bathroom floor, nor some mathematical doodle. It was a mind-boggling, preconception-shattering illustration of five-fold symmetry, 'non-computability' and, quite possibly, the meaning of life."

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