Science

Dr. Faust, Harvard’s First Female President

This morning, I woke up and turned on NPR. The hosts were in the midst of a discussion of Harvard University’s newly named president, historian Drew Gilpin Faust. My ears perked up immediately, since I’ve written about the school’s search to replace Larry Summers for the past year (see here, and here, and here, and here). From what I heard on NPR, Faust seemed to be a popular choice, with the only real criticism voiced thus far being her non-science background, which is at odds with Harvard’s clear desire to build a stronger science program. Prior to her promotion, Faust led the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a post-grad school affiliated with Harvard that focuses on women’s studies.

NPR’s guest this morning brought up the point that the real Dr. Faust’s lack of science background had no impact on her ability to recognize the importance of the sciences. One could also say that a male president would be able to recognize the importance of women in academia, but actually hiring a woman to the position makes it clearer that there are real efforts to address the issue, and a woman can offer deeper insight into the issue than can a man. In the same vein, a president with a scientific background would probably have an easier time boosting that program at Harvard; a woman with a scientific background would most likely be best equipped to address both issues.

All of that, though, is simply generalizing based on an anonymous person with hypothetical credentials. With Dr. Faust’s particular experience and personality, I’m confidant she can get the job done so long as she acknowledges the importance of women in the sciences.

Now, for really no good reason, here’s a brief glimpse at my blog-writing process.

Between the time when I left my apartment and the time I arrived at work, I thought of at least a dozen other topics I’ve been meaning to write about, like a girl who talks to angels, a load of cool newly discovered sea creatures, and the whole Boston Mooninite Terrorist Fiasco. When I checked my email at work, I got two more good stories. I decided that Faust should get top billing, though, since I’ve been on this storyline for so long.

Included in my email this morning was one from Rav, who sends me a lot of great news items. He linked to a story on Faust, adding, “I know you already know all about this bit of news. But what I think is cool is that you can now say that the president of one of America’s foremost university is DOCTOR FAUST!”

I laughed, because this hadn’t even occurred to me. I knew that the Dr. Faust of lore was someone who had sold his soul to the devil, but I didn’t know the origin or details of the story. I started clicking around on Google and Wikipedia, reading up on the legend. This is what takes up the most amount of time when I’m writing an essay — one thing leads to another, and I have to keep soaking up information.

Wikipedia’s basic overview of the plot was particularly interesting:

The story concerns the fate of a learned scholar named Faust, who in his quest for the true essence of life (“was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhaelt”), summons the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), who offers to serve him as long as Faust lives. Mephistopheles may receive Faust’s soul, but only when Faust has attained the zenith of human happiness. In the second Part of the Faust tragedy (Faust 2), Faust really does have the pleasure of experiencing the latter. However, Mephistopheles, trying to grab Faust’s soul when the protagonist dies, is burnt down by the empowering force of love. Faust deserves to go to heaven, because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding (“man must strive and err”) that exceeds the limits set for human beings.

I had never really thought of Faust as a hero for science and knowledge. I also had no idea that people could draw comparisons between the Faustian story and Sonic the Hedgehog. Sometimes Wikipedia is a strange, strange place.

My own quest for knowledge spanned a good two hours, interspersed with quick Monday morning meetings, writing an article for my actual 9 to 5 job, and consuming much caffeine. By the time I reached the Wiki page for Sonic the Hedgehog, I had pretty much forgotten about my original topic. Perhaps tomorrow’s entry will be all about adult ADHD. Or hedgehogs. Ooh, hedgehogs!

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Hey, speaking of Harvard, women, and science, don’t forget that Evelyn and I will be at the Redline in Harvard Square tonight, celebrating Darwin’s birthday around 7 pm or so. Come say hi!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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20 Comments

  1. Cool, I didn't know the ending to the Faust story, just the typical "deal with the Devil" bit. Hooray for Wikipedia!

    Also: Did you know that hedgehogs love chili dogs? It's true. It was on the old Sonic cartoon series, so it must be true.

  2. Rebecca,

    I commend the appointment of Dr. Faust. I'm a feminist, so I can appreciate the appointment of a woman to such an important post. I am a little concerned by recent news at Harvard, however. It sounds like the university is abandoning secularism in favor of religion. I could be way off base, but that's what this sounds like:

    http://www.gulf-times.com/site/topics/article.asp

    Science is getting greater influence, so perhaps it's not as bad as it looks. I just fear that our most prominent university will give in to the current conservative/right-wing trend and support religion over empiricism and rational thought. What's your take? Are my fears unfounded?

    Interested in your take.

    -J

    P.S. We're thinking of starting a skeptic organization here in Williamsburg, VA. I'm tired of being accosted by Creationists. If it takes off, would you ever be interested in being a guest speaker? Fan of the podcast.

  3. Hey, I would totally do Rebecca.

    I don't think it's intellectual incest.

    Especially not if we do it in jello.

    Also, I don't envy Dr. Faust. Harvard's the most political, divisive, backbiting group of faculty around. I hope she makes it.

  4. Damn! See, the rotten thing about not being able to read the Blog from work is that by the time I get home to read, all the GOOD comments have already been made!

    I'll just have to content myself with sending in News Items.

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