As I mentioned earlier in the week, I went to One Day University on Saturday. This was the first time this had been held in Washington and it was done in conjunction with The Atlantic. The event was at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill, which is a reasonably central but slightly bleak location.
There were four sessions, each of which offered tw o75 minute classes to choose from. For the first session, I chose "How the Brain Works: Why We Do What We Do," presented by Marvin Chun of Yale. I am reasonably knowledgeable about neuroscience, but it was interesting to hear about some of the more recent research using functional MRI to investigate brain activity. In particular, Chun showed results from experiments in which scientists could actually get images that indicate what people were thinking about. He also touched on the question of persistent vegetative states and showed research that indicates at least a small percentage of people in such states show relatively normal brain activity. While I can’t say he really answered the "why we do what we do" part of the title, this was a worthwhile lecture. I also found myself wondering if he had any clue that, during the Q&A, he only looked for hands raised in one half of the room.
For the second session, I chose "Beethoven’s Ninth: The Story Behind the Masterpiece," presented by Thomas Kelly of Harvard. Kelly’s emphasis was on what the audience at the piece’s premiere would have known and how they would have reacted to it, versus how we hear it today. I found this truly fascinating. We are so used to thinking of the Ninth as something of a radical work of music, overthrowing the rules of the symphony, but he pointed out ways in which it is less radical than that, e.g. by comparing the opening of the final movement (which becomes the choral movement, after quoting from the earlier parts of the symphony) to a bass rage recitative. Kelly was an enthusiastic and entertaining lecturer. I left feeling enriched.
They sold boxed lunches, but I was more in need of some fresh air and movement, so I went out for a brief walk. After lunch, I went to a session on "Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness" by Catherine Sanderson of Amherst. She talked about a lot of research on what does and doesn’t make us happy and ran through several things people can do to improve their happiness. While she was a very entertaining speaker, I was a little uncomfortable with some of how she talked about her family. I also wish she had addressed cross-cultural issues.
The final lecture I went to was "Four Books Every Book Lover Should Read" by Joseph Luzzi of Bard College. He actually talked about five books, primarily by reading excerpts from them. My bigger disappointment was that the description had said that he would address how participants could develop their own list of essential reading and he didn’t touch on this at all. Overall, this was the one of the four talks I would not recommend.