Harvard Thinks Big 5 & 6

Harvard Thinks Big, the Harvard event we founded that brings together all-star professors for one night to share their big ideas, has reached its sixth year. The Crimson had a good rundown.  Open Culture had a piece on Harvard Thinks Big 5 with each video from the event.  Here’s the Harvard Thinks Big youtube playlist:

Plus, here’s the link if you’re interested in following Harvard Thinks Big on iTunes.

Harvard Thinks Big 3

Harvard Thinks Big has reached its third year. The Crimson covered the event:

The audience in Sanders Theatre heard speeches on topics ranging from symmetry in Beethoven’s music, to incarceration in the U.S., to genetically modified food on Thursday evening, all in the space of an 80-minute event.

At the third annual Harvard Thinks Big forum, eight esteemed Harvard professors addressed a packed house for just ten minutes each in a whirlwind tour of big ideas in academia.373067_314614091913883_1158655183_n

We had a great Motown band to play in between the acts, too:

Peter D. Davis ’12, who hosted the event, said, “My goal was for this to solidify Harvard Thinks Big as a tradition, for it to be something that people look forward to, something that makes Harvard, Harvard.”

He added, “Like the Oscars, we like to add something new.”

That added touch at this year’s iteration of the event was performances by the student band The Nostalgics throughout the evening.

“In my three years at Harvard, Harvard Thinks Big is one of my favorite events,” said K. C. Jaski ’13. “Harvard Thinks Big is like an intellectual rock concert, complete with inspiration, goose bumps, and great music.”

The Harvard Political Review had a rundown:

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.

220724_1268777_630x418Jill 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?”

Here’s what I told them about the purpose of the event:

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.”

Here’s the original promo video for the event:

And here’s one of the more popular talks, by Professor Jill Lepore on the history of the board game Life:


Harvard Thinks Green video

Harvard’s Sustainability Office took the Harvard Thinks Big concept and made an environmentally-themed version: Harvard Thinks Green.

Here‘s a feature on it in The Harvard Gazette:

A problem as complex and potentially intractable as climate change demands equally big solutions. At the first Harvard Thinks Green on Thursday, six Harvard professors gathered at Sanders Theatre to provide just that kind of thinking.whiteposterwebsite_0-1

The event was meant to tap into the “original fundamental reason why we are all here on campus for four years: ideas,” said Peter Davis, a senior who co-foundedHarvard Thinks Big, which co-sponsored the event with the Office for Sustainability and the Center for the Environment. At Harvard, students have the opportunity “to propose them and play around with them and fight against them and to sometimes even work to implement them.”

Their ideas, which touched on corners of society from science and medicine to politics and urban planning, made it clear that reversing the declining health of the environment can’t be left to any one group.

Here’s my intro remarks:

Harvard Thinks Big 2

Harvard Thinks Big, our annual event for bringing together all-star professors for one night to share their big ideas, has lived to see another year.  Harvard Thinks Big 2 was covered by The Harvard Crimson:

Davis said he was delighted with what he referred to as the increased legitimacy of this year’s Harvard Thinks Big, and that he hopes to make the event a new Harvard

Harvard Thinks Big is a symposium of ten of Harvard's most renowned professors that come to speak about the one thing they are most passionate about in ten minutes or less. Richard Beaudoin, Lecturer on Music, makes his presentation.  Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Harvard Thinks Big is a symposium of ten of Harvard’s most renowned professors that come to speak about the one thing they are most passionate about in ten minutes or less. Richard Beaudoin, Lecturer on Music, makes his presentation. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer


He also said he wants students take away an important message from the event, that they too can think big.

“I hope that they don’t think they are surrounded by great ideas,” Davis said. “I hope that the think that they, themselves, have great ideas.”

The Wall Street Journal took note:

One cool aspect of Harvard Thinks Big is that students don’t just recruit big names. They look for “cult figures” within departments, as one organizer put it: teachers who may not be famous, per se, but who leave students writing lots of exclamation points on their course evaluations.

This year, they included the music lecturer Richard Beaudoin, who guided students through a piece by Bach, and Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist who explained what it would mean for the universe to have dimensions that we can’t yet grasp. “It could be that we are only seeing some small plane inside a higher visual world,” Randall said. Even for an idea that large, the professor got only ten minutes. Concision’s the thing.

The Harvard Gazette also had a great run-down:

“We want this to be a festival of Harvard ideas and an inspiration to the people in the crowd that big ideas drive our world forward, and that discussing them, thinking about them, coming up with your own, testing them out, implementing them, are really … what we should be doing,” said Peter Davis ’12, who founded the event along with Derek Flanzraich ’10.

Here was the original promo:

We also had a twist this year — student ideas videos:

And Professor Lawrence Lessig brought down the house with a campaign finance reform pitch:

The Diggers’ Harvard Student Lecture Series

In the spirit of Harvard Thinks Big, a group of friends and I — under the the moniker of The Diggers — launched The Harvard Student Lecture Series, a Harvard Thinks Big for students.

The Harvard Crimson covered our first event:

diggerAccording to member Talia N. Lavin ’12, the Diggers are committed to creating ways for students to come together and share ideas, feeding already-established  passions and sparking new ones. Frustrated with the “intellectual parochialism” she sees at Harvard, Lavin wants people—herself included —to feel free to abandon the “pre-formed self-definition” that makes many scared to venture outside their specialties.

And our second:

Peter D. Davis ’12, another Diggers founding member, said that the group provides opportunities for students to communicate their different passions in an encouraging environment.

“We knew we were onto something with the concept of finding things that could bring Harvard students together, bring us out of our little segmented, compartmentalized, Harvard subcultures together into a unified intellectual community,” he said.

Harvard Thinks Big

The Harvard Crimson just ran a great article and video on Harvard Thinks Big. Here’s the video:

Here’s the original pitch video (apologies for sounding so lame):

Here’s one of the hit speeches from the night — David Malan’s:

Spencer Lenfield wrote a great roundup for Harvard Magazine:

Davis was thrilled with the result. “One of the goals was for people to go there and be reminded, even though we grind away at our homework, in the end, what’s our goal? It’s the whole idea of Veritas, truth… It’s to take big ideas and mix them together, to share them and make them accessible to people, to make them meaningful.” The crowd that night clearly left with a sense of intellectual enthusiasm beyond that of a normal day of classes. Cynically, one might ask whether such energy is merely ephemeral, spurred on by the dynamism of a one-night event. But it is encouraging that, even before the lecture began, Sanders was packed full merely at the prospect of a night dedicated to the sharing of ideas.

And here’s part of an essay I wrote for the Harvard Gazette on the event:

The real innovation of “Harvard Thinks Big” (and the West Coast “TEDTalks” that inspired it), though, is not that it made knowledge bite-size. It was that it made professors take their years of work and boil it down to its core, to find the driving force behind their passion for exploration, to find and share the answer to the lingering question: “Professor, what’s the takeaway? What’s the big idea?”

And what they shared was not “truth for dummies” or “truth, glamorized” or “truth, action-packed.” What they shared was an idea, a tremendously important form of veritas that has been lost to many in academia. Ideas are infused with passion. Ideas are often subjective and often have (gasp!) a spiritual element. Ideas are organized and poetic. Ideas are relevant. They take data and make it matter to people. All ideas, as English Professor Matthew Kaiser said that night, “start as emotion.”

(Cambridge, MA - February 11, 2010) Ten Harvard Professors talk for ten minutes about what they are passionate about during Harvard Thinks Big at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. Staff Photo Kristyn Ulanday/Harvard University

(Cambridge, MA – February 11, 2010) Ten Harvard Professors talk for ten minutes about what they are passionate about during Harvard Thinks Big at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. Crimson Staff Photo Kristyn Ulanday/Harvard University