On February 9, 2012, hundreds of Harvard students gathered in the majestic Sanders Theater at Memorial Hall to partake in one of Harvard’s latest and greatest traditions, Harvard Thinks Big.  This was the third annual event, in which eight professors from Harvard were selected by the students to share their big ideas with the community.  The professors selected this year included Doug Melton, Eleanor Duckworth, Nicholas Christakis, Jill Lepore, Daniel Lieberman, Donhee Ham, Kaia Stern, and Stephen Greenblatt.  Together, they inspired Harvard to think big to solve the big problems that we face today.

So What Were These Big Ideas?

Doug Melton shared with the crowd how we could create better, healthier bodies if we began to target and stimulate stem cells.  In the case of muscle stem cells, he suggests that we simply find ways to remove or reduce the influence of the inhibitor that helps to control the cell’s growth.  Similarly, he argued that we should be looking to find food that will help to stimulate nerve stem cells that can help us grow smarter.  Making stronger, smarter, and generally better people is how Professor Melton thinks Big.

Eleanor Duckworth presented the topic “Confusion, Play, and Postponing Certainty” in which she shared with the community gathered in Sanders her thoughts on education and how children should properly be taught in school.  She not only condemned teaching to the test, but also argued that “students are being deprived of a good education.”  Furthermore, she was able to demonstrate through an example of examining poetry that what matters in the classroom is that students are constantly thinking and supplying their own ideas.  Teachers may supply their own.  But their main role is simply to lead students through thought processes.  She encouraged Harvard to think big on education.

Nicholas Christakis gave a short lecture about “How Social Networks are like Carbon.”  The professor and Pfoho House Master made the point that “connections matter” in every aspect of life, and he talked about how connections between people have an effect on the happiness of others or even the success of a Broadway show.  In the end, Kristakis drove home the point by comparing graphite and diamonds, both made of carbon.  Though they are both made of carbon, they have very different properties.  Thus, he made the point that how these elements appear collectively changes the properties that define it.  He encouraged us to apply this principle to our daily lives.

Daniel Lieberman gave his talk on “Making the World Smaller,” in which he argued for the return of an old Harvard tradition which existed from 1920-1970, a four hour per week fitness requirement.  Lieberman pointed out that obesity has been and is becoming a much greater problem for the United States and the world.  And so, in light of the fact that we cannot simply change our biology, and because drugs, therapies, and education are often not enough, the single best tool that we have to fight obesity is coercion.  Lieberman said that “If we can’t change our biology, we must think about changing our environment.”  To do so, Lieberman advocated for the return of the fitness requirements for Harvard undergraduates.

Donhee Ham gave a rousing lecture on what he called “broken symmetry.”  By demonstrating his own piano talents through per-recorded videos, Professor Ham was able to demonstrate for us the symmetry that we often experience in life, particularly in music, and how wonderful it usually is.  But then he also was able to demonstrate how asymmetry also could be used to create an even more profound outcome, as demonstrated through a photo of Maryland Monroe whose beauty was enhanced by a mole on just one side of her face and through Beethoven’s Third Symphony which was very fiery and quite pleasing to listen to.  And through these demonstrations, he educated the crowd on his grand theory of broken symmetry.

Jill Lepore at Harvard Thinks Big 3

Jill Lepore took on what was dubbed “a very modest topic.”  Her presentation was on the meaning of life.  Throughout her segment, Lepore brought us through the history of board games about life with her starting point being Checkers, created by Milton Bradley who was a Harvard drop-out.  This original checkers set had a board with half of the squares containing different events in the typical life of a person starting from infancy.  She compared this to older games like the Indian “Game of Knowledge,” which later became “Snakes and Ladders,” and later “Chutes and Ladders.”  And she brought us to the many evolutions of the game called “Life,” for which the main goal is to make money.  In the end, she concluded that board games have changed as our conception of life has changed.  And she thought big by challenging us to think of what our board game of life might look like.

Stephen Geenblatt presented to those gathered in Sanders Theater his thoughts about “Speaking with the Dead.”  By giving us the examples of so many hundreds of words that Oxford Dictionary credits to Shakespeare, particularly in Hamlet, Professor Greenblatt was able to covey how important it was to connect with those that have passed on through that which they say, write, and create.  It is through literary works much like Hamlet that we are able to see the dead more clearly and come to understand them as people more fully.

Finally, Kaia Stern gave an exhilarating speech entitled “Act Big: Dare to See.”  In this final segment of the night, Professor Stern recounted for the audience her many experiences in prisons and the kinds of dehumanizing behaviors that happen there and all around the world.  She even expressed her concern that today more than one in  thirty-one people are imprisoned in the United States.   Stern may have been one of the most compelling of all of the speakers in her call for Harvard students to make a difference and to stop such injustices from happening.  She very boldly stated at the end: “What will you do in the face of dehumanizing behavior?”

Eight professors and eight big ideas captured the attention of the crowd.  These professors challenged Harvard students to think about the big problems of our day.

Why Harvard Thinks Big is so Important

Current Harvard Senior Peter Davis came up with the idea of Harvard Thinks Big just three years ago, and it has been a success ever since.  Davis says that he believes that professors should share their talents and ideas with Harvard students.  He sees Harvard Thinks Big as an opportunity for students to think about the problems of our day in a whole new light.  In a sense, he wants Harvard students to think big.

As Harvard President Drew Faust stated in a video introduction to the show, “Harvard faculty are heirs to the great innovators of Harvard University.”  President Faust was spot on when she called on the faculty at Harvard to be as innovative as possible and to engage in the kind of grand thinking that Harvard is renowned for.

Peter Davis put it best when he said that the goal of Harvard Thinks Big is to bring these grand “ideas back to the center of undergraduate life.”  Eight great professors with eight very big ideas, with a little help from a Harvard Band called the Nostalgics, fired up the crowd of students in Sanders and gave them several reasons to think big.

Photo Credit: Harvard Crimson

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