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Significant Contributors to Society and Scholarship

6.3.09

Since 1989, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) has awarded its Centennial Medal to alumni who have made significant contributions to society and scholarship. This year’s medalists include an art historian who encouraged viewers to simply look; an historian who explored the impact of slavery; an economist who pioneered game theory as an approach to conflict resolution; and an astronomer with a passion for pulsars.

Brief biographies appear below. The full citations, read aloud at the annual luncheon on June 3, follow.

Svetlana Leontief Alpers ’57, Ph.D. ’65, is a noted American art historian. She became a member of the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley in 1962. Now professor of Northern Renaissance art emerita, her specialty is seventeenth-century Dutch art. She is the author Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market (1988) and The Vexations of Art: Velazquez and Others (2005), among other works, and serves as a consultant to both National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

David Brion Davis, Ph.D. ’56, Sterling professor of history emeritus at Yale, is noted for his study of slavery and abolitionism. He taught for 14 years at Cornell before moving to Yale in 1970. He is director emeritus of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, which he founded in 1998 and directed until 2004, and has served as president of the Organization of American Historians (1988-89). In 1967, he won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1967, as well as the National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize, for his book The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, and in January 2007 received the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction.

Thomas Crombie Schelling, Ph.D. ’51, Distinguished Professor at the Maryland School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, College Park, and Littauer professor of political economy emeritus at Harvard, is an economist with expertise in foreign affairs, national security, nuclear strategy, and arms control. He was awarded the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Robert Aumann) for "having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis." Schelling served with the Marshall Plan in Europe, at the White House, and in the Executive Office of the President from 1948 to 1953. He wrote most of his dissertation on national income behavior by working at night while in Europe. He left government service to join the economics faculty at Yale, and in 1958 was appointed professor of economics at Harvard, later joining the Kennedy School faculty.

Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr., Ph.D. ’68, McDonnell professor of physics and former dean of the faculty at Princeton, is the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics (with Russell A. Hulse) "for the discovery of a new type of pulsar, a discovery that has opened up new possibilities for the study of gravitation." He taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, from 1969 to 1981 and then joined the Princeton faculty. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Taylor has been recognized with many other awards, including the first Heineman Prize of the American Astronomical Society, the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, the Carty Award for the Advancement of Science, the Einstein Prize, and the Schwartzchild Medal. Among the first group of MacArthur Fellows, he has served on many boards, committees, and panels, co-chairing the Decadal Panel that produced the report Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium that established the United States’s national priorities in astronomy and astrophysics for the period 2000-2010. The Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics is jointly awarded each year by the American Astronomical Society and American Institute of Physics for outstanding work in astrophysics.

Full citations, delivered by Pope professor of the Latin language and literature Richard Tarrant, at the luncheon honoring the 2009 GSAS medalists:

Svetlana Leontief Alpers, A.B. ’57, PhD ’65, fine arts

The Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik has written “if the world were fair, Svetlana Leontief Alpers would have won a Nobel Prize by now, just like her dad.” Gopnik argued that, while Wassily Leontief’s contributions have helped to reshape the practice of economics, his daughter’s work has had an equally profound affect on something as significant, and perhaps even more universal: the way people think about, talk about, and indeed look at great works of art.

Alpers’s impact on the discipline of art history has been both deep and wide. In the words of Seymour Slive, her dissertation reader and now the Gleason professor of fine arts emeritus at Harvard, Alpers is a scholar “whose numerous, seminal—and sometimes controversial—publications have energized discussions on Renaissance and Baroque art in the international community of historians for more than a quarter-century.”  Even before she became widely known, with the publication in 1983 of her groundbreaking book The Art of Describing, her work possessed a remarkable confidence, fueled by the seemingly simple desire to look at paintings in and of themselves, not to look through them for hidden symbolism or layered meanings.

Alpers was born and raised in Cambridge by a father who was a leading Harvard economist and a mother, Estelle Marks, who was a poet. It must have been a creative and invigorating upbringing, one that encouraged and rewarded curiosity and careful study.

She earned a B.A. in literature at Radcliffe in 1957, and that part of her education is often cited as an important source of two of the traits that make Alpers distinctive. One is what Gopnik called her “radical close looking” — an approach to artwork that mirrors the kind of close reading practiced in literary study. The other is her distinctive writing style. According to the New York University art historian Mariët Westermann, Alpers “makes you remember her interpretations by their pithy phrasing, apt literary reference, or sudden summations. ‘Is art history?’ ‘No telling, with Tiepolo.’ The language never feels pedantic, recondite, or forced; forceful would be a good word for it, and visual even better.”

Alpers received her Ph.D. in 1965. Her dissertation focused on the mythological works of Rubens, laying out themes and an approach she would employ throughout her career. “No one has tried to deal with the force and meaning of works so much of whose ‘art’ is contained in their narrative surface,” Alpers wrote, “in the sensitivity and brilliance with which Rubens handles the ‘artificial rind of Fable’ itself.” By demonstrating the nature and importance of narration in Rubens’ mythological works, her study provided a new way of understanding his most important series of such works, the pieces he designed for the Torre de la Parada, the hunting lodge of Philip IV.

Rubens’s storytelling was direct and dramatic, Alpers said. The same can be said for her own work. Says Westermann, “From her first article—the remarkable re-reading of Vasari’s Vite as staking out a new aesthetics (1960)—Alpers has surprised, delighted, and, one of her favorite words, vexed her readers with novel readings and viewings of artists about whom, it would seem, we had said it all: Vasari, Bruegel, Rubens, Velazquez, Tiepolo, Rembrandt, Vermeer.” 

Her books have profoundly influenced the discipline of art history, and The Art of Describing reached beyond that discipline to stimulate new thinking across the humanities. Her later books include Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market (1988), which won the College Art Association’s Charles Rufus Morey Book Award in 1990; Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1994), written with the late Michael Baxandall; and The Vexations of Art: Velazquez and Others (2005), in which Alpers looks backward and forward in time to understand Velazquez’ painting The Spinners. She also founded the interdisciplinary journal Representations with Stephen Greenblatt at the University of California, Berkeley; she remains a corresponding editor.

Alpers is professor emerita of the history of art at Berkeley. She began teaching there in the early sixties and remained until her retirement in 1994. She has also been a visiting scholar in the department of fine arts at NYU. “Her emphasis on looking first has been as central to her teaching as to her writings,” says Westermann.  “Her Ph.D. students have assumed leadership positions in the field, pursuing tracks set out by Alpers but charted with the independence of mind she exemplifies and cherishes.”

One of those former Ph.D. students, Walter Melion, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Art History at Emory University, praises those same qualities. “Svetlana’s…students…were encouraged to follow her in searching for modes of interpretation fully responsive to the viewer’s experience of pictorial presence. As she moved from one book project to the next, so the ways in which she construed images and the questions she raised about them changed; and so, accordingly, did the student cohorts she was training change, as they adapted their notions of pictorial form and function, manner and meaning, visual address and conditions of viewing, to the interpretative challenges she set herself.  She was demanding, as are all truly inspiring teachers, but also generous, and above all she urged us to think independently.”

In retirement, Alpers has engaged more directly than ever with the processes of working artists. Together with painter James Hyde and photographer Barney Kulok, she recently completed a series of photographic prints based on three Tiepolo paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The series, Painting Then For Now: Fragments of Tiepolo at the Ca’ Dolfin, was exhibited to acclaim in New York in 2007, and parts of it were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art—the perfect home for a creation of this most devoted of art lovers.

David Brion Davis, Ph.D. ’56, history of American civilization

As a young soldier stationed in the occupied Germany of 1945 and 1946, David Brion Davis was profoundly shaped by witnessing at first hand the ruination of war. But it was not only the destruction that affected him. On the boat to Europe, he found that black soldiers were confined to the lowest hold in slave-ship-like conditions. In Germany, he saw violent conflicts between white and black American troops, and he heard racist speeches from his commanding officers. 

That wartime experience spurred some thoughts about a career. In a letter he wrote to his parents in October 1946, when he was 19, Davis said, “I’ve been thinking over the idea of majoring in history....I believe that the problems that surround us today are not to be blamed on individuals or even groups of individuals, but on the human race as a whole—its collective lack of perspective and knowledge of itself. That’s where history comes in.” Teaching history, Davis believed, should be “an unearthing of truths long buried beneath superficial facts and propaganda...

Perhaps such teaching could make us understand ourselves,” he continued. “It would show the present conflicts to be as silly as they are. And above all, it would make people stop and think before blindly following some bigoted group to make the world safe for Aryans, democrats [with a lower-case D], or Mississippians.”

Those words proved to be prescient, at least with respect to his own approach to scholarship and teaching. David Brion Davis, the Sterling professor of history emeritus at Yale University, is widely considered today’s foremost scholar of slavery and its role in shaping U.S. and world history. Throughout his distinguished career, he has fearlessly pursued the goals he set out as a 19-year-old: to strip away propaganda and to dig beneath the accepted truths, to look at things as they are—even when the view reveals what he has called “the darker underside of the American dream.”

Davis received his B.A. from Dartmouth College in 1950 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1956. As he was finishing his dissertation—an investigation of beliefs and ideas about homicide, as revealed in American fiction from 1798 to 1860—he made a significant new acquaintance in Kenneth Stampp, a visiting professor on leave from Berkeley. Stampp was the author of The Peculiar Institution, a history of American slavery distinguished by its assumption of equality between blacks and whites, and Davis was deeply affected by their talks. His realization of how seldom the subject of slavery had arisen in his studies thus far, combined with his interest in issues of human morality, would become the driving force in his career.

“The moral imagination has animated all of David’s historical inquiries,” says Nancy Cott, the Trumbull professor of American history at Harvard. “He has stated eloquently his conviction that ‘nothing in history is absolute or clear-cut; that truth is always framed in ambiguity; that good and evil are won at a cost; that all choice involves negation.’ This tolerance for ambiguity is a hallmark of the brilliance of his writing.”

Davis broke new ground with The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, published in 1966, which won the Pulitzer Prize and established a transnational direction for research into societal attitudes toward slavery and its contradictions. Since then, he has written or edited 17 other books, among them The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), Slavery and Human Progress (1984), and most recently, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006). He has won the American Historical Association’s Albert Beveridge Award, the Bancroft Prize, a National Book Award, the Society of American Historians’ Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement, and, in 2007, the AHA’s Award for Scholarly Distinction.

Davis taught for 14 years at Cornell University before moving to Yale in 1970, remaining there until he retired. He is also the director emeritus of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, which he founded in 1998.

His effect on his students and colleagues has been perhaps as profound as his impact on the scholarship of slavery and anti-slavery. Professor Cott was a student of Davis’s at Cornell and a colleague at Yale. On the occasion of his retirement, she wrote “It is no surprise that when a group of David’s former students put an anthology together in his honor, they called it Moral Problems in American Life. David’s moral integrity stands out in the mind of all his colleagues. One day-to-day place we see it is in his utter conscientiousness: whether the task is a prize committee, or graduate applications, or evaluating dissertations or candidates—it is part of his own ethics never to coast but to be fully responsible.”

John Stauffer, professor of English and of African and African American studies at Harvard, is another former student deeply inspired by Davis. Stauffer calls him “one of the two or three most influential humanities scholars today, in large part owing to his extraordinary mentoring. The list of students he has worked with, either officially as a dissertation advisor, or unofficially because of his boundless curiosity and generosity, is simply staggering.”

Richard Wrightman Fox, professor of history at the University of Southern California, was Davis’s research assistant in 1972, a year Davis spent at Stanford. “I learned a lot about slavery and anti-slavery that year,” Fox recalls, “but I also made a friend, and I got a lasting lesson in the daily discipline of scholarship. I remember the rustic wood-plank walls of the simple square room that was his office, the bicycle propped carefully against one of the walls, the sharpened pencils waiting on the desk, the books and articles spread across it, the absence of a telephone that might threaten [his] concentration.... Somehow a book was emerging from the play and work of David’s mind upon his neatly organized array of written sources.

“David was writing that year, not teaching,” Fox continues, “but he inadvertently taught one second-year graduate student that if you rode your bike to the office every day, and applied your brain and heart to a subject of passionate interest, a book would surely follow, as night the day.”

In every way, Davis was a model for his students. And his scholarship will stand as a model for generations of students to come.

Thomas Crombie Schelling, Ph.D. ’51, economics

In a career spanning more than a half-century, Thomas Schelling has analyzed all manner of threats to humanity: nuclear arms proliferation, crime, drugs, and global warming, to name several. An economist by training and a true social scientist by inclination, he has never been bound by departmental or disciplinary walls. Having been swept up in the great events of World War II and its aftermath, he found homes in both government service and academia, shaping policy and turning his early interest in bargaining strategy into a body of work on game theory, arms control, and conflict resolution that would ultimately be recognized with the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics.

The Nobel committee wrote in announcing the prize, “Against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race in the late 1950s, Thomas Schelling’s book The Strategy of Conflict set forth his vision of game theory as a unifying framework for the social sciences. Schelling showed that a party can strengthen its position by overtly worsening its own options, that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation.” The book became a classic, and its insights have had lasting relevance for conflict resolution and the prevention of war.

Schelling is today a Distinguished University Professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and the Littauer professor of political economy emeritus at Harvard. Born in Oakland, California, in 1921, he received his B.A. from Berkeley. As he told the Nobel committee, “I was brought up during the Great Depression, and when I went to college, I felt that the worst problem we had was the problem of depression and unemployment, so I majored in economics.”

He spent a year and a half as an analyst with the U.S. Bureau of the Budget before coming to Harvard for graduate work. He was appointed a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows, but he resigned the fellowship to join the administration of the Marshall Plan, spending a year in Copenhagen and a year and a half in Paris. He wrote much of his dissertation in Europe, working at night.

That thesis, National Income Behavior: An Introduction to Algebraic Analysis, was published by McGraw-Hill in 1951 in its Economics Handbook Series. Schelling sought to develop an algebra of national-income analysis that wouldn’t require previous knowledge of mathematics. The result showed, wrote Schelling, that “a wide range of theoretical problems in the field of national-income behavior can be analyzed efficiently by the use of some fairly simple mathematics.”

That emphasis on simplicity would mark Schelling’s work for the rest of his career — a characteristic emphasized by Graham Allison, Harvard’s Dillon professor of government, who calls Schelling “a living exemplar of the proposition that profundity does not require obscurity.”

In the early 1950s, Schelling was a member of the White House staff of the foreign policy advisor to the President, the office that managed foreign-aid programs. He left the government to join the economics department at Yale University, then in 1958 was appointed professor of economics at Harvard. He joined the faculty of the newly created John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1969.

But his involvement in government affairs and more broadly in world affairs never ended. He began publishing on bargaining strategy in the 1950s and soon saw the applications that his approach to game theory could have for foreign policy, especially nuclear weapons policy. In the 1960s he advised the Kennedy Administration, chairing the interagency committees that brought into being the hotline between the Kremlin and the U.S. government and that initiated the process leading to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. “He was a seminal influence in the conception of ‘arms control,’ says Allison, “a member of the first generation of ‘wise men’ who demonstrated the value of independent analysis of the challenges posed to the world by nuclear weapons.”

In the 1970s and 1980s his interests took a new turn. After serving on a substance-abuse committee of the National Academy of Sciences, he became interested in the idea of commitment—how people commit themselves, successfully or not, to avoiding bad behavior and embracing good. Several essays on the subject appeared in two later publications, Choice and Consequence, in 1984, and Strategies of Commitment, in 2006. He also grew fascinated by the ways in which individual behavioral choices could aggregate into social phenomena that were unintended or unexpected. As he later wrote, “One part of this work involved modeling spatial ‘segregation,’ the ways that people who differ conspicuously in binary groups—e.g. blacks and whites, males and females, officers and enlisted personnel, francophones and anglophones—get separated spatially, in residence, in dining halls, at public events. Without knowing it I was pioneering a field of study that later became known as ‘agent-based computational modeling.’” Much of this work was published in Micromotives and Macrobehavior in 1978.

In 1980, the National Academy of Sciences invited Schelling to chair a committee to advise President Carter on the so-called “carbon dioxide problem,” on the agenda of an upcoming European summit. He learned a lot, quickly, and a few months later was asked to join the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, where he says he “became an extremely well educated amateur” and wrote a report on the policy and welfare implications of climate change. 

As Richard Zeckhauser, the Ramsey professor of political economy at the Kennedy School, writes, “Thomas Schelling’s remarkable contributions help us to understand how the world works. He has provided us with deep insights into the behaviors of individuals, groups, and nations, and thereby into problems such as addiction, racial segregation, and global warming. Most important, his studies of conflict and its avoidance have made the world a safer place to live.”

 In his essay for the Nobel committee, Schelling writes that the subject of global warming continues to interest him greatly. In his words, “Mobilizing to do something about prospective global warming and climate change is what I expect to be, during this century, what nuclear arms control was during the century just past.”

We can only hope that this time there is a Thomas Schelling around to lead the charge.

Joseph Taylor, Ph.D. ’68, astronomy

Joseph Taylor’s family could have had no inkling that his early, sometimes mischievous experiments with ham radio would lead to a Nobel Prize. And yet, reading the evocative essay he wrote for the Nobel committee in 1993, it’s easy to trace a direct line from boyhood exploits to science’s highest honor. His youthful adventures—driven by curiosity, encouraged by a large, caring family, and fueled by Taylor’s sense of fun and his love for discovery—seem integral to the groundbreaking astrophysics he would go on to do.

Taylor, the McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of physics emeritus at Princeton University, was born in Philadelphia but passed most of his childhood on his family’s farm in New Jersey.  He spent hours setting up large, rotating ham-radio antennas on the roof of the farmhouse. As he wrote, he and his brother “filled most of the third floor with ham-radio transmitters and receivers. Our rigs were mostly built from a mixture of post-war surplus equipment and junk television sets. We learned by experience that when you need high voltage, the power company’s 6,000-to-120-volt transformers work admirably in reverse; and that most amplifiers will oscillate, especially if you don’t want them to.”

Taylor attended Haverford College, where he awoke to the delights of physics and the satisfactions of the scientific process, and where he built a working radio telescope as part of a senior honors project. Having found the field he wanted to pursue, he came to Harvard, where he later wrote that his work in astronomy, physics, and applied mathematics was the hardest he’d ever done. His dissertation, on lunar occultations of radio sources, was aided invaluably by his mentor, Alan Maxwell, who, among other things, taught him the importance of clear, well-crafted writing in a scientific paper. His thesis research also fortified him with knowledge that would become important years later in his study of pulsars.

Jonathan Grindlay, Harvard’s Paine professor of practical astronomy, was, in 1968, a Harvard graduate student a few years junior to Taylor.  He recalls those days as being filled with creative play like that which marked Taylor’s boyhood. “We used to do statistical analysis on the Coke bottling plants (with those wonderful old glass bottles, stamped on the bottom with whatever bottling site had produced them),” said Grindlay. “In the days before easy graphics, some of our...colleagues made elaborate maps of the density distributions of Coke bottles that had migrated through the distribution system to the Harvard College Observatory. Sounds rather quaint, but chalk it up to future productivity in mapping the universe—or, in Joe’s case, the distributions of pulsars in the galaxy.”

Pulsars—rapidly rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields—had been identified in 1967, and when the finding was published the next year, just after Taylor completed his Harvard dissertation, it immediately attracted his attention. He was beginning a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard and looking for an interesting new project in radio astronomy. He devised a computer algorithm for recognizing pulsar signals, and by June of 1968, he and his Harvard colleagues had discovered the fifth known pulsar in the galaxy.

He continued his work at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he was a member of the faculty from 1969 to 1981. In 1974, he and his then-graduate student, Russell Hulse, using the 1,000-foot radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, were the first to discover a pulsar in a binary system, with two neutron stars orbiting each other. The discovery had enormous significance, because it provided the first proof of gravitational radiation and the strongest support yet for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It continues to yield new findings to this day. In recognition of their discovery of what the Nobel committee called “a space laboratory that could test one of Albert Einstein’s most important theories,” Taylor and Hulse won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1993.

Taylor joined the faculty at Princeton in 1980 and continued to look for pulsars and to mine their significance. Of his Nobel partner, Russell Hulse writes: “I have always said that it took a special sort of scientific ability, rigorous attention to detail, and many years of patience fully to realize all of the exciting scientific promise of the binary pulsar discovery.  Joe is the perfect scientist to have met the challenges of that research and delivered such superb results.”

Taylor has received many other awards, including the first Heineman Prize of the American Astronomical Society, the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, the Carty Award for the Advancement of Science, and the Einstein Prize. He was among the first cohort of MacArthur Fellows, and he co-chaired the National Research Council’s Decade Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics, a panel whose report set U.S. priorities in astronomy and astrophysics for the period from 2000 to 2010. His scientific publications comprise approximately 200 articles and book chapters.

He is still animated by the same spirit of adventure and love of discovery that drove his boyhood experiments. In his Nobel essay, he wrote, “I have noticed in recent years that many budding scientists worry much more than I ever did about what the future may bring: how to get into the best university, work with the biggest names, find the best post-doctoral fellowship, and secure the ideal university position. My own psychological bent, insofar as it has influenced any professional decisions, is to pursue a path promising enjoyment along the way, without looking too far ahead.”

Certainly not as far as Stockholm.