This semester, third-year architects are studying architecture in the Mexican capital region—but they’re going about it in a way that’s never been done before at Cooper. In fact, it’s not even technically at Cooper. On September 23, the entire Architecture Class of 2019 embarked on a trip to the Mexican capital and returned just yesterday. Travelling with them was Dean of Architecture Nader Tehrani as well as Prof. Mersiha Veledar, Prof. Maria Gonzalez Pendas, Prof. Michael Young and Mauricio Higuera. Mauricio planned the logistic intricacies—he even has a 3-foot-by-6-foot map of Mexico City hanging in his office, with pins marking all the sites they intend to visit.
Their itinerary was packed with “site visits, exploring buildings not open to the public and discussions with expert scholars,” according to Dean Elizabeth O’Donnell, Associate Dean of the School of Architecture. In her experience, “once you’re an architect, you’re no longer a neutral tourist. Even though you’ve seen photos, and designs and models of the structures, visiting the thing itself is so important.” She referred to the works of architect Félix Candela she taught the same students about last year. She added, “To study something abstractly—through photographs and structural concepts—is one thing, but to actually climb the shell and feel the curvature in your bones and walk the scale yourself is another thing entirely.”
Such a trip is unprecedented. The idea to incorporate a travelling portion to the curriculum originated from a student, Kevin Savillon (Arch ’19), while in discussion with Dean of Architecture Nader Tehrani. Faculty said that Dean Tehrani’s immediate interest in having an ‘on the ground’ research component made the trip academically compelling and ultimately possible. It took over two semesters of meetings between Savillon, Dean Tehrani and others to make the trip happen. They just had to figure out how to incorporate it in the jam-packed architecture curriculum and then pick a place to go.
The trip to Mexico is folded into the curriculum halfway through the students’ Cooper career. It is part of the requirements for Analysis Studio, a class in which the students each pick a work of architecture and conduct research through nearly every lens imaginable—from studying street-grid traffic to learning about how climate effect and solar conditions affect the design. In previous years, third-year Design Studio classes picked buildings around a theme, like libraries or focused on precursors to modernism. But they never had the opportunity to visit the sites they studied so intensely. That’s what is different about incorporating this trip in Design III.
The question on their mind while choosing where to go was “what would be the most culturally and experientially powerful choice” that was not too far away (so as to keep costs down). Indeed, costs were an important deciding factor. The trip was funded within the School of Architecture’s Special Project Fund—that is to say, within the budget of the school, without any outside donations. So is that justified in the context of the Cooper Union’s steep budget cuts and demands for even more cuts coming soon to reduce deficit spending?
The idea is to fund this trip in this way this year and then get it endowed by an outside donor for years to come. Of course, there were other projects that the Special Project Fund would have been spent on but now must be
foregone. Still, the value of this trip is substantial and enduring. Not only is the trip valuable to the travelling students’ own practice, but the trip also fosters bonds with other architecture scholars internationally but also builds an incredible archive of global work and understanding that will be familiar to future Cooper architecture students.
This trip in the present has the potential to radically change the students’ practice and identity now and even decades from now. ◊
“There’s a moment so surreal when one physically enters a space that has only been experienced through literary references and secondhand representations. The implementation of a traveling portion within the ‘analysis’ studio gives students the opportunity and fulfillment of experiencing a built structure in-person in tangent to its site, culture, and history.
Five days after visiting the building that I will be analyzing for the entire semester, my class took a trip to School of Architecture at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). During that visit, we were shown the ‘Archive of Mexican Architects’, wherein I found countless original drawings of the Museo Tamayo. There were drawings of construction details, isometrics of electrical mapping of the building, to the details of screws used to holster up the skylights—none of which were digitized or copied and stored elsewhere.
But what was even more interesting and enlightening about traveling to Mexico were the conversations that I have had with professors and historians about the history of the building, the construction and political process in developing the project, as well as their personal experiences in visiting the building 30 years ago.
I hope this experiment of traveling abroad in tangent to the analysis semester proves successful and continues for years to come. Cheers to Dean Nader Tehrani for taking a risk and making this program come to life!” - Kevin Savillon
This trip was so fantastically educational for me. I come from an incredibly monotonous suburb in a country without much cultural identity, so the opportunity to be immersed in a place with so much heritage and ambition that translates architecturally was so great and really moving. – Joyce Li
“Mexico city seems to be a collage of different cultures and eras, and it is precisely this mixture what Mexicans feel represented by. It is apparent in the architecture we have seen the influence of the country’s heritage and geographic location: from Barragan’s use of color to the way a great amount of buildings play with rain water, such as Ramírez Vázquez in Museo de Antropología.” - Mireya Fabregas
“Apart from the architectural riches Mexico has to offer, I find the traveling studio to be a great way to get to know the my fellow students and the professors. First time excitement not only on a geographical base, but also in terms of social and intellectual interaction. I could not have imagined a more delightful introduction to The Cooper Union!” - Bastiaan Vandersanden
The Cooper Union Joint Student Council ratified an entirely rewritten constitution on Tuesday, September 20. It replaced the previous constitution, which had not been revised since 1998. The document became effective immediately with 28 votes in
favor, six against, and two abstaining. The overhaul of the 1998 constitution occurred over the summer and the new document was written by the six-member Constitution Committee including Chris Curro (MEE ‘16), Daniel Galperin (ChE ‘18), Julian Mayfield (Art ‘18), Waseem Nafisi (Art ‘18), Celine Park (Arch ‘17), and Clara Zinky (Art ‘18). Initially, Vaughn Lewis (Arch ‘19) was involved but was later replaced by Mayfield, who also serves as student trustee.
The revision was prompted by the 1998 document’s ineffectiveness at outlining policies for voting or bringing forth resolutions—arguably the two main functions of JSC. In order to pass a resolution, the constitution mandates a 70% quorum and a 70% approval vote—that means a minimum of 14 of the 20 members must be present and 70% of those present must vote yes. In addition, the new constitution establishes a ballot system, rather than voting by a show of hands. A procedure for proposing resolutions is suggested, but intentionally leaves room for alternative methods.
The body of the Joint Student Council has been reduced in size to 10 engineering members, 5 architecture members, and 5 art members. The previous constitution established 15 architecture, 16 art, and 20 or 21 engineering representatives. The revised number of representatives was intended to facilitate discussion. Compared to the previous policy, “the committee felt that 10-5-5 was a more appropriate breakdown,” explained Curro. “We tried to make a much smaller body that could act more efficiently and be more effective.”
The proportion of council members from the Engineering School was increased to reflect the school’s population. The Art and Engineering Schools have an approximately equal ratio of council members to students, while on the other hand, the
Architecture School is slightly overrepresented so as not to have too few architects on the council.
The requirement of a 70% majority prevents the Engineering School from unilaterally outvoting the other two schools. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all,” said Jeremiah Pratt (EE ‘19) regarding the representation policy, “it would be near impossible for Engineering School to be the dominant voting bloc.” In addition, the constitution was amended such that if an entire school votes against a resolution, then that resolution would not pass. Although there are measures to prevent the Engineering School from dominating in terms of votes, the increased representation of the school does not rule out the possibility that engineers could dominate the dialogue in the Council.
“We tried to make a much smaller body
that could act more efficiently and be more effective.”
- Chris Curro (MEE ‘16)
The 10-5-5 representation policy proved to be a point of contention at the ratification meeting. “It essentially cuts the school in half,” commented Maya Krtic (Arch ‘17) on the possibility that the new composition of the Council might pit engineers against artists and architects. Krtic is a proponent of an equal number of council members from each school—or at least a compromise of 8-6-6. The variety of opinions expressed on the policy reflects the contrasting ideas on the role of Joint Student Council. Should the Council represent each of the three schools as separate entities, or should it represent the collective student body?
The new constitution outlines an enforceable attendance policy to address low levels of attendance in previous years. If a member is absent twice without delegating an alternate both times, then that member is “expelled from both the Council and their respective student council.” The policy was viewed by some as excessively harsh and even an overreach of JSC to be able to remove members from the student councils of the individual schools.
Notwithstanding, in order to have a functional student council, the attendance of the members is needed. The four mandatory meetings per semester are scheduled in advance (as required by the new constitution), and council members who may be absent have the discretion to appoint any alternate they deem fit. The constitution intentionally does not specify who may serve as an alternate and leaves the clause open to interpretation. “I understand the contention over the attendance policy,” said Pratt, “but it’s important for this new JSC to function well, because the accountability policies under the old constitution were ineffective.”
“Although, a few people were able to make the time commitment over the summer, that doesn’t mean that their opinions or values are hierarchized over those of the entire council.” - Emily Adamo (Art‘17)
The writers of the constitution intended to allow council members more discretion while simultaneously increasing transparency. For example, vote tallies and how each member (or their alternate) voted on a resolution are made public. In addition, minutes from each JSC meeting will be published. “A member is not merely a mouthpiece,” explained Curro, “they are meant to be focal points—nodes with lots of connections.” The idea is that Council members will be well equipped to act in the “best interest” of their constituents because the they will have access to a wider body of information from their fellow students, their respective school councils, and Joint Student Council.
The rewriting of the JSC Constitution over the summer was put in motion at the end of this past school year. According to Daniel Galperin, it was agreed upon at the last meeting of last semester to vote on the new constitution at the first meeting of this semester. “It was good that the decision came in the first meeting,” commented Zhenia Dementyeva (Arch ‘20), “the three schools sometimes contended with each other, so it was better to push for a decision.”
Despite this agreement, some still felt that the timeline was rushed, especially since not all of those interested in the writing process were able to devote time over the summer. In addition, there appeared to be no contingency if the new constitution was not accepted at the first Council meeting. “I think generally that rewriting of the constitution was a good move, and I support most of what is written in the document, but the process by which it passed worries me,” said Krtic.
Should the Council represent each of the three schools
as separate entities, or should it
represent the collective student body?
The meeting itself had some tense moments, and the conversation felt “almost scripted” in the way that it was led, according to Dementyeva. “Although, a few people were able to make the time commitment over the summer, that doesn’t mean that their opinions or values are hierarchized over those of the entire council,” expressed Emily Adamo (Art ‘17). There appeared to be pressure to commit to the deadline agreed upon last semester and hold a vote, which ironically was a simple show of hands rather than a closed ballot as outlined in the new Constitution.
Although there is perhaps some uneasiness about the upcoming year for JSC, the Constitution also includes a clause establishing a yearly revision process. Ultimately, no amount of deliberation or planning can completely prepare JSC for potential issues, and throughout the coming year, the new Constitution will continued to be tried and tested. ◊
There’s a scene in the TV series Silicon Valley where the gang at Pied Piper recruit a young programmer known as “The Carver” to configure their application to the cloud. After spending the night going through each line of code to fix an error, he crashes on the couch. “You said you could code for 48 hours straight.” An extremely lethargic Carver replies, “How do you think I do that? Adderall.” While there were no traces of Adderall at Cooper’s third annual student hackathon over the weekend, there was a whole lot of caffeine.
HackCooper was held over a 24-hour period in the NAB, opening the doors of our building to students eager to explore their maker side. Whether you were new to hacking or already adept at a programming language, all students were encouraged to register and participate in this weekend-long event in the hopes of winning from a selection of prizes.
Using the resources at hand as well as their own individual skillsets, participating students at HackCooper teamed up with one another to brainstorm through the night and develop an original project. “Cooper’s hackathon is all about giving students the time and resources to discover and explore work that really interests them,” said coordinator Zach Tzavelis (ME ‘19) on the goals of HackCooper.
Submitted team creations were evaluated by a judging panel and appropriately awarded in a number of categories including Most Technical Hack, Best Data Privacy Hack, and the biggie: Best Overall Hack. Prizes for each award varied, given the wide variety of sponsors supporting the event including Facebook, LinkedIn, Bloomberg, Viacom, and Autodesk.
Mentors from the sponsors were also available for mentorships throughout the night, allowing students to communicate one-on-one with industry professionals about their hack. In addition, various tech talks were given in both Rose Auditorium and classrooms. Furthermore, Major League Hacking, the official student hackathon league backing HackCooper, made available different software packages and hardware for teams to use in their projects. And of course, in typical hackathon fashion, there was much “swag” to be given out.
Designated classrooms and labs were open for teams to use, allowing them to camp out in their workspaces and develop their creation before the submission deadline in the morning. Because this was an overnight event, student coders were aware of the imminent risk of sleep deprivation, but excessive caffeine consumption was definitely not encouraged. The onsite rep from Major League Hacking, Li Chen, put it best: “If you’ve never had a Red Bull before, tonight’s not the night to try it for the first time.”
By the morning, familiar classroom arrangements were left unrecognizable as teams tirelessly worked to submit their hacks on time. After a preliminary round of judging on Sunday afternoon, the participants and judges gathered in Rose to see the eligible teams present and demo their projects onstage. Winners were determined and announced shortly after these final demos. This year’s submissions can be found at: http://hackcooper2016.devpost.com/submissions
Best Overall Hack went to Concert.fish, a project made with the intent of making music listening more collaborative through listener feedback. Concert.fish was developed by the team consisting of Rafi Mueen (BSE ‘19), Michael Lendino (EE ‘20), Andrey Akhmetov (EE ‘20), Richard Yee (Art ‘18), and Michael Ossienov. The team was granted an all-expenses-paid trip to the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, CA to participate in Facebook’s own hackathon. ◊
At the cabinet level of the administration, this summer has been as busy as ever.
The Acting President, various VPs, all the Deans, and other administrators have been wrapped up working (1) on finding places to spend less money, (2) planning for Cooper’s accreditation process, and (3) thinking about the search for new Deans.
What follows here is a brief overview of what’s on Acting President Bill Mea’s mind right now based on an interview for The Pioneer.
Budget Cuts and overall Financial Health
The short version:
From Bill Mea’s perspective achieving financial health means, in the short-term (3 years): balancing how much is spent every year versus how much money comes in, and then in the long-term (20 years): putting money back in the savings account so we have a safety net and are working towards paying back our loans. All the while, there is utmost priority on returning to free.
The long version:
Before this year, the last major update from Bill Mea was the Budget and Financial Projections published in February 2016—a document that made big waves because it enumerated for the first time how much money it would take to return to free. (Recap: The document outlined the $15 million gap between how much money we spend annually right now versus how much we should spend every year while giving free tuition. The gap must be closed with spending cuts or additional revenue. The cuts, however, must be sustainable—not just cut now only to be added back later—and additional revenue cannot be from tuition).
At the time, the most pressing issue was immediately cutting $3 million from the annual budget within two years. The progress on that is excellent: in the first year (this year), $2.2 million has already been sustainably cut from this year’s budget. Bill Mea: “Currently, the budget for this year is imbalanced—we are spending more than we bring in. By 2019, we will have a balanced budget, but that will still include money from tuition. The goal is of course to create a balanced budget that does not depend on tuition, and that’s a real challenge.”
In anticipation of that, the Board of Trustees asked Mea’s administration to come up with even more cuts than that. Some of these cuts are effective immediately, such as choosing a new company to conduct Cooper Union’s annual audit has resulted in lower fees; while other cuts will be rolling out soon this year, like “trimming down on consulting expenses and travel costs.” Yet still more cuts will be in place three years from now.
Bill Mea and other sources all-but-revealed that the cuts coming very soon would include “changes in personnel costs”—a euphemism for firing people.
At the Free Education Committee meeting in June, a major topic of discussion was a study of how “The Cooper Union has more non-instructional staff per student than institutions in a similar geographic area, of similar size, offering similar degrees and even of similar academic reputation.” In simpler terms, we have a lot of administrators, directors, secretaries, assistants, etc. on full-time payroll compared to pretty much any other place—and it’s unsustainable. To be clear, these are not cuts in faculty positions or “positions that impact students directly”, but rather administrative roles only. This will be happening very soon, this year itself. Mea assured that the decisions will be disclosed publicly soon, but also requested that the matter remain private at first to “honor and be just to people [affected].” As such, The Pioneer is not seeking this information at this time.
The full picture of financial health extends beyond simply balancing the amount spent compared to the amount of money coming in. According to Mea, the Board’s discussion of financial health has shifted with the help of the recently appointed Financial Monitor—an outside company with financial expertise Cooper is legally required to consult following the terms of the lawsuit settlement. The Financial Monitor has helped define overall financial health to include not only balancing the budget but also replenishing savings and reserves. Bill Mea: “We have depleted every reserve, there’s nothing left. It’s like an individual person that every month gets their pay and every month spends all that pay, and they have no savings account. So when the car breaks down or you lose a job [or any other unforeseen expense or loss of income], there is nothing to fall back on.” The importance of this kind of thinking is clear: “When we get back to free, the last thing we want to do is not be free again [due to a lack of savings].”
Certainly, it is gratifying to see real and effective action towards returning to free with emphasis on staying free thereafter.
The preparation for the accreditation process is well underway, led by co-chairs Prof. Daniel Lepek and Director of Campus Enterprise Applications Brian Cusack (both Cooper alumni). Committees are
being formed to assess Cooper’s compliance with standards set by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The accreditation process involves drafting a self-study report—a place for Cooper to reflect and assess its own conduct and processes. Of particular note are Standards related to Support of the Student Experience, Ethics and Integrity, and Governance, Leadership and Administration. Bill Mea: “This does represent an opportunity for us to identify where we should improve” and it’s a chance to affect real change in these areas. All students are invited and highly encouraged to get involved in the accreditation process by getting in touch with Lepek or Cusack.
Search for Deans
Acting Dean of Engineering Richard Stock has been in his position for one year now. Bill Mea: “He’s done a tremendous job as dean—like I knew he would—bringing the school together and helping it move forward.” According to rules negotiated with the faculty union, Stock is allowed only one more year as a temporary dean and Mea recognizes that time is running out to find a full time dean. Until now, the search for a new dean has been on hold until a new president was found. “Now that [President-elect] Laura Sparks has been named, I went to Stock and through him I have asked the engineering faculty to begin forming a search committee for a new dean. Knowing that these processes take some time, I wanted to get it started.” Each department (the four engineering majors, plus chemistry, physics and math) will have representation on this search committee. “When Laura [Sparks] gets here in January, she will then be working with that committee.”
Mea had only positive things to say about Acting Dean of Art Mike Essl. Bill Mea: “He’s really done a great job already.” And there is no rush to find a replacement since he only started as Acting Dean in July of this year. ◊
Where are you from? And how did you hear of the Cooper Union?
I’m from Istanbul, Turkey. My friend and I were searching schools online and came across The Cooper Union. My friend had met someone at summer school a few years ago who is now a sophomore at Cooper. He told me that his friend loved Cooper and that he was extremely happy there. The next week, when my international college counselor and I were working on my college list she also mentioned Cooper as an option. She knew about Cooper because a student from my high school applied here after a someone from Cooper visited my school that year.
What attracted you most to Cooper?
I was already impressed with what I had read online about Peter Cooper’s philosophy and the history of Cooper. So, when my counselor said I should apply, I decided to do so. After looking at the Common App for Cooper I realized I liked the essay topics and was pleased with the fact that the administration at Cooper was actually interested in the students’ backgrounds, personalities, and thoughts.
So tell me more about Istanbul and your life there before coming here.
I volunteered at animal shelters for eight years, and consequently, I took care of a lot of dogs and cats. I used to take the sick puppies and older dogs home as they needed extra care. I would nurse them so that the puppies could be adopted and the older ones could spend their last days in a warm and loving atmosphere. Since I lived in the suburbs next to the biggest forest in Istanbul—the Belgrade Forests—there were a lot of stray dogs who I would feed as well. One of my three dogs was rescued from a shelter and another one is a stray that followed me home.
How does New York compare to Istanbul?
Istanbul is much cleaner than New York, but there are still a lot of similarities between the two. At times, I don’t notice I am in a new city. However, Turks are much closer to each other, and hence I feel a bit lonely here. However, thanks to my totally awesome roommates and friends I am much happier than I was when I first arrived.
How are you enjoying living in New York so far?
My favorite part about New York is Central Park. We have some big forests in suburban parts of Istanbul, and all my life I lived either right next to Marmara Sea or the Belgrade Forests. Growing up, we always had a yard or garden, so I am used to being close with nature. Even though Istanbul is near a lot of forests, there are not a lot of parks. The few parks in Istanbul were also far from the city center whereas Central Park is right in the middle of Manhattan.
What attracted you most to Mechanical engineering?
When I was ten years old, the door of our living room fell and I was the one who repaired it. That moment was the first time I realized how much I enjoyed figuring out how something works, what’s wrong with it, and how to fix it. I always loved spending time around machinery but it hadn’t occurred to me to be an engineer up until that point. The moment I put the door back in place and saw it was fully functional was when I knew I wanted to solve mechanical problems as a career.
As I grew up, I discovered more and more about what mechanical engineers did, and it made me more excited than I could ever imagine to be. When I was 16, I studied in the United Kingdom, the birthplace of modern mechanical engineering. By then, becoming a mechanical engineer was the main goal in my life. Besides that, I volunteered a lot in my community. I worked at the dog shelters, but I also worked with children who had leukemia, helped with arts & crafts for paralyzed people, and read to the elderly at the nursing home. I realized that in everything I did, helping others and making strangers’ lives easier were what made me happy. Since engineers are the ones that make the world a better place by bringing economical and practical solutions to everyday problems, I believe being an engineer will enable me to work for and contribute to the advancement of humankind.
What else are you hoping to get out of Cooper?
I am looking forward to start thinking like a real engineer, especially knowing how things work and being able to mentally draft objects just by looking at them. I also am excited to be able to discern when and how to improve them. ◊
Can you give us a little background about yourself?
My academic background is relatively simple. I started physics at the beginning, and I got a PhD in astrophysics. I worked as a researcher in astrophysics for a few years in the evolution of galaxies and quasars. I published some articles on the subject, and then I gradually moved to philosophy. It was not a rupture, but a long transition, in the sense that even while I was working as a researcher in astrophysics I started giving conferences on the philosophical foundations of cosmology, and even modern science like quantum mechanics. This was my first serious approach to philosophy. Later, I moved a lot through different countries, and I finally arrived in Barcelona, Spain. There I started collaborating with the faculty of philosophy, teaching several subjects in the field of epistemology and the philosophy of science, at different levels. I came from science, and thanks to my experience as a researcher and an astrophysicist they opened the door to me. At the same time, I decided to simultaneously study philosophy, seriously. Even though I didn’t follow the whole curriculum of philosophy, indirectly I started on my second PhD in philosophy. I followed some courses on the curriculum, without being officially enrolled, and they accepted me as a PhD student. I started again. I wrote a master’s thesis on the concept of time – [translated] “The Concept of Time – Some Thoughts on Kant and Einstein.” It is sort of a comparison between idealistic philosophy on the conception of time and the theory of relativity. Thereafter, there was a sort of interruption in my research; it was after 2009, and the whole world was chaos. The effect of the crisis on Europe lasted several years, and I couldn’t continue my collaboration with that university, even though I had some level of responsibility as the director of a research group. I had to find some way to survive elsewhere, so I also worked as a highschool teacher for four years. I taught mathematics, physics, and philosophy at the same time. So I had to interrupt for a while my research work. Thereafter I started again, and instead of continuing my work, which is the natural thing when working on a PhD thesis, I decided quite naturally to focus on how artists express through art the conflict between the objective and the subjective dimension of time. Therefore my PhD thesis focused on contemporary art. The title is “Time and Temporality in Contemporary Art.” I moved from astrophysics to philosophy of science, and then again with a continuous transition to the philosophy of art. I think there is a continuous line in my academic and personal evolution. From a reflection on the evolution of the universe as a whole, I moved to the conflict between subjective and objective time, and I finally approached the very question of the expression and the perception of temporality. To add something more, I’d like to describe my personal evolution. It of course follows a parallel path, in the sense that I’ve always been moved by a sincere desire of exploring my internal restlessness. I’ve always been decided to focus on what I really consider the most worthy subject, in any situation. As you can imagine, my personal life has been the same way: very unlinear. I’ve been to many countries and done so many things in my life – not because I was tired and wanted to change, but because I am always looking towards the horizon. I always try to imagine the essence of things past the surface. I remember clearly that this is a personal attitude which I had even when I was a child. I think it’s simply the application of my way of being and what I’ve done.
How long were you in the field of astrophysics before you started to transition into the philosophy of science?
If you say “before you started the transition,” then it’s difficult to say, because my transition started even before concluding my first PhD in astrophysics. I can tell you sincerely that even while I was spending sleepless nights following my calculations about black holes, which I was very enthusiastic about, and moved by a sincere passion for, it was clear to me that what was the most worthwhile question was not the object of our gaze, or even our imagination, but the very fact that we, a small creature on a small planet called Earth, dare to imagine such a complex world. I was fascinated – and I’m not saying this now just because I’m a professor of philosophy – by the very fact that we were trying to reconstruct such a complex reality. Of course, I didn’t pretend, and I’ve never pretended, to reach the final, absolute truth. This was the biggest difference between myself and some of my colleagues. I had the impression from some of them that they pretended to arrive at the final answer about the big bang theory, or the nature of galaxies, or their evolution. To me, it was a very fascinating subject, and I put forth all my effort in order to make a worthwhile contribution, but it was clear that it was just speculation; it was a sort of fascinating play, but the truth, if it exists, was very far from our model. And it was just a model. Sometimes they work, in that the results of our model are not so far from what we observe, and we can compare observation to our model. It’s always distant though, the two cannot match. When it’s not so far, we can say “oh it’s not so wrong, our model.” Maybe it’s just by chance that we arrived at this similarity, but the nature of what we are trying to describe is beyond not only our mathematical capabilities, but even our brains’ capacity. I wasn’t worried about that. I thought, and I think, that it’s still worthwhile to put in that effort, because in trying to reconstruct such a complex reality we are going out of the cave, as in the image of Plato’s cavern. This desire to reconstruct the external reality moved us from a simply material, and trivial way of living, to a different attitude, with respect to all reality, not just with respect to astrophysics. That’s why it’s worthwhile, even if the truth, if we can say that, is very far from our models. Mine is quite a peculiar attitude when compared to many of my old colleagues, which is why I think now that I really had a philosophical attitude. Even at that time I was more interested in the relationship between we as a small creature, and the infinite.
If you could go back, would you do it in the same way, starting with the field of astrophysics?
I recognize that it has been a very long, and complicated path. If you think about which is the easiest, or more effective path to arrive as a professor of philosophy, I’d tell you to study philosophy at the beginning and go straight forward. So I have no doubts that what I have done has been much longer, more difficult, and riskier, but I would still do the same. I do not regret the effort which I lived. I say lived because it’s really something that I experienced in myself, deeply. I think that that kind of intellectual effort has been very useful. If I write as I do right now, it reflects my effort to try to synthesize the complexity of reality. When you have to manage so many things – I’m thinking of the evolution of galaxies, which is a subject in which you consider simultaneously in detail both physical processes and the overall structure of the universe – in your mind, and propose an original model, you need to be able to combine both an analytic and a synthetic way of thinking. This is also very useful for anything else you will do. So I don’t regret it. It took a long time to take this path, but I consider that, in everything we do, what matters is not the final result, but the path. Otherwise, we’d all simply wish to die because that’s the final end. Meanwhile, we have a lot of things to do, and the path is more interesting than the result. It’s difficult to say if I would so the same thing, because I’m so curious, and there are so many things that I would like to do, and I’ve had no time to do them. But if the question is “do I regret having spanned so many years studying astrophysics,” then the answer is no.
Can you tell us a little bit about your travels.
The easy part is to tell you that I’ve lived in eight countries. I started in Italy. Then I did my first PhD in Paris, where I did my research project. After that I spent one year in Israel, at a post-doc fellowship. After September 11th, the whole situation in the middle east was quite hot, so we decided to move to a totally different environment: Mexico. I spent three years in Puebla working as an astrophysicist, at the National Astrophysics Institute. Meanwhile, I have also spent almost one year, at different periods, in India, invited by another important institute of astrophysics. I spent three intervals of three or four months at a time in India. After that I arrived in Spain, and spent more or less ten months in Barcelona, and then, as I told you, I started working directly in the field of philosophy, teaching the philosophy of science, and another of my interests, the philosophy of music. And now I am here. I move a lot, following not only my internal curiosity, but also, and above all, my desire to confront myself with other cultures and realities. I never try to hold on to my fixed point of view when I travel. I try to listen, and understand different points of view. While I cannot forget that I am a western person, I really try to put forward an effort to approach, as close as possible, Indian culture, for example. I even studied Hindi, even learning how to write. I did it not only because of my curiosity, but that it is also a way to demonstrate by word and action that I wanted to approach their culture. That’s very useful; when I was on the road, I could totally change the relationship I had with a passerby just by speaking a few words in Hindi. I studied Indian music, and playing it was an incredibly emotional experience with another musician. I couldn’t forget my culture, and of course I didn’t want to simulate being Indian. I really wanted to move from my fixed point of view, to try to understand the other. After living in many countries, I think that it’s useless to look for the best place in the world. It simply doesn’t exist. Instead, we have to find it in each situation of our life to learn and understand something. After my experience in many countries, in many situations, and even in many jobs – even my experience as a high school teacher, which was the hardes job I’ve done – I have found that it’s very useful to experience different points of view. It allows you to more easily understand, for example, the problems of teenagers. As a father, it’s especially important to put forward that effort. We can’t consider that the younger generation are… I don’t want to say stupid, but this is unfortunately the attitude – not my attitude – of many old, mature people. I think the opposite. Young people, even teenagers, have brilliant minds, full of enthusiasm, and curiosity, much more than other people. Unfortunately, they lose themselves for other reasons, but potentially you have incredible potential. My attitude has always been to listen to everybody, even in the case where my situation has been hard for other reasons. I’ve always tried to learn from every country, and every experience.
How has that experience been so far for you in the states?
Well it’s too early to tell so far. I arrived at the end of August, for the first time. I had just been here in May, to give my talk. So I can’t say anything.
What do you feel your role as a professor is for students here, and do you think that’s different from what you’ve seen abroad?
Here I can tell you something. Even though it’s been just one month, I’ve had a very positive opportunity of getting to know you guys, and the dynamic of teaching here. I really have been positively surprised. In Europe I taught in different universities, and there is a more passive conception of teaching. Sometimes students give presentations, but only as official, formal assignments. We don’t have this kind of round table, where we share our opinion, with the direction of the professor, who can moderate, or give hints. I think that’s very important, and I’m happy to have this opportunity. Not only do I think that it important for you, the student, to have the chance to be involved in the process of learning, in the Socratic sense. The professor is just helping you to get out from yourself what you already have at an intuitive level, or in ordering your thoughts. It’s important that one participates, and not just be a passive spectator of a play. It’s also more useful for me as a teacher, as I really have the opportunity, in both the ethics course and in the freshman seminar, to understand what you receive. I have in mind an idea of what I hope to transmit, but sometimes I’m far from reality. Having this chance to share, and participate together, even though we can’t always do that since I need to give formal explanations, is very useful to me in seeing what you receive in the discourse I try to organize. I can also learn from you, both because you can have interesting ideas that stimulate me to go in deep and understand something more, and because I can find tune and adjust my way of explaining something. Although it’s been just one month, it’s a really positive experience.
Do you have any advice to offer the students here?
I’ve just discovered Cooper students, with just a glimpse of an intuition of you. Up to now it’s been very positive, so it’s difficult to understand your weak points. I’m happy with both my ethics course and the freshman seminar. I haven’t seemed to see if there are weaknesses in you. I will just say what I say to all my students, at any level: try to be curious. Something I have experienced my whole life, even to be a good engineer, is that it’s very important to think about art, literature, and many other things. This can make you a better, more complete person, but also in your own work, this allows you to have a wider view. Einstein played the violin, and many other important scientists had other interests besides physics. To be a good physicist, even, you need to be involved in other kinds of thoughts. It is clear why it is so. If you just focus on one, specialized, thing, you’ll be good at that field, but as soon as the conditions are slightly different, you will be lost. I’ve seen this in some of my colleagues who have spent years studying one specific problem, with no idea of the whole picture. Once they took one step outside of their field, they couldn’t move. So it is important to study The Odyssey when you are a physicist. Reading an old text obliges you to learn how to analyze the different levels. Moreover, it gives you a wider view, besides making you a better person. If you want to be a good scientist, you first have to be a good person. So my advice is be curious, travel, and try to see a different point of view. Even if in the end you decide “I prefer my country, my city, my point of view,” that’s fine, but first you have to go out, live, and see the other perspectives. Later, if you come back to your own place, you will have a much wider viewpoint. Travel both physically, and mentally, and move away from a narrow point of view, which is a problem in both science and in society. There is an important American physicist, David Tong, who points out that one of the problems with contemporary science is the fragmentation of knowledge. We are choosing to be in subfields that are too narrow, and people can remain their whole lives in these narrow spaces. We need to open our minds, and Cooper students are in a very positive environment for this. You have a wonderful opportunity to open your mind, with students of the engineering school having to follow literature courses and philosophy courses. I think this is the best place for my conception of education, and maybe, on the other hand, it’s not by chance that that is so – perhaps I was chosen for my conception of education.
What are your hobbies, and how do you spend your free time?
I would like to have free time [chuckles]. If you want a simple answer, listening to music, sailing and walking. ◊
You’d think that with the internet, your friends and family, and all the help you get at school you would know the ins and outs of easily transitioning from school to the work place—if that’s what you wish to do. But with many resources comes a lot of confusion and too many opinions to listen to all of them.
A few years ago when Cooper had the Peer Mentorship program, where freshmen were paired up with upperclassmen, the freshmen valued the experience and in one case said that “I might have failed some classes if it wasn’t for my mentor giving me tips on time management and class selections.” That program unfortunately seems to have been phased out and has now been replaced with the Career Mentorship Program run by our own Career Center.
A largely successful program, the Career Mentorship Program connects students of varying interests and majors to Cooper alumni of similar interests and allows the student to dictate and take control of what they want in this relationship. Students are able to discuss career goals, career paths, general interests, and seek all the advice they need. Participation has grown in the past few years, with the number of alumni that want to participate exceeding the number of students that apply to the program. Students who are happy with the relationships return to the program, but are often paired with other alumni. The student-alumni connection is incredibly important, and makes it much simpler for Cooper students to understand how their predecessors made their way from Cooper to where they are now.
People love talking about themselves, so this is the best chance to figure out what you can give to them and what they can give to you. Networking and conversing with people who have more experience than you are never one-sided. Those who are established and respected in the workplace have been out of school for (probably) a long time. If they cannot translate how they’ve gotten to where they are, how do they expect their company to grow and allow a new generation of employees to prosper? This is where the student comes in and listens to what they have to say.
Be ready to dedicate time and do your research on those you speak with and their respective careers. Prepare yourself a list of questions to ask with regards to the company where your person of interest works, but don’t forget to consider questions that are on a ‘different level’ too, for example: “What about the company makes you want to stay and work there?” A good distribution of ‘on-topic’ and ‘off-topic’ moves in your questions and answers can separate you from the others: no one wants to hear about the classes you take. All mechanical engineers take Mechanics of Materials. All chemical engineers take Organic Chemistry. What allows you to stick out is the work you may have put in those classes outside of the class itself: scientific journals, news articles and projects are all worthy of conversation!
Mentors can be helpful with regards to easing you into being able to connect with a professional; however, if you look online, there are dozens of articles and posts on why you need a mentor. Though many people may say this, it is more so up to you—the person without (much) experience—to train yourself. You could dedicate time to connecting with people who can assist you in your career. Any established professional connection can turn into your own personal mentorship program. Events where either employers or professionals are present are good opportunities for you to go and find someone who might help you plan your future. As an example, when Career Coach John Crant visited Cooper last semester to speak about the importance of networking, not only were students attracted to this event, but professionals came in to speak with the students. I had the opportunity to speak with representatives from a variety of engineering consulting firms, and had simply asked them why they chose to come to a largely student based event. The most common answer: to interact with the students and hear what they are up to; new projects, new research topics, anything and everything new.
To summarize: work on your projects, attend networking events, get business cards, and actually reach out to the people who have given you their information. They are opening the door for you, and simply want you to walk through it and discuss what makes you you, and what makes them them. A conversation about why you both enjoy the latest Dan Brown novel, or why you have a mutual hatred for particular, poorly structured crosswords may be worth more than asking a professional what you can do to succeed at a company. ◊