GUGGENHEIM FELLOWSHIPS awarded

Two faculty members and a visiting lecturer have received 2016 fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in recognition of their excellence in scholarship or creative work. The fellowships were awarded to Daniel Garber, the A. Watson Armour, III, University Professor of Philosophy, for his project, How Philosophy Became Modern in the 17th Century; Juri Seo, assistant professor of music, for music composition; and Raphael Xavier, a visiting lecturer in dance and the Lewis Center for the Arts, for choreography.

Garber researches the history of philosophy and the history of science in the early modern period, especially the questions of what is considered philosophy and what is considered science, and how that has changed over time. He is the author of numer- ous works on the science and philosophy of Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and others.

Seo is a composer and pianist who writes music that is unified and fluid but also complex in structure. She brings influences from music of the past century into her compositions, which are serious and humorous, lyrical and violent, and use fast-changing dynamics. She has earned many composition honors and joined the Princeton faculty in fall 2014.

A hip-hop practitioner since 1983, Xavier is a choreographer with a profound understanding of movement, sound and musicality. In addition to his success at integrating hip-hop styles into dance theater, he has created an approach to dance that helps with physical healing and makes movement accessible to any body type. His artistic work also includes photography, film and music.

Raphael Xavier

Raphael Xavier (Photo by Brian Mengini)

Juri Seo

Juri Seo (Photo by Andrew Wilkinson)

Daniel Garber

Daniel Garber (Photo by Nick Barberio)

A RISKY PROPOSITION: Has global interdependence made us vulnerable?

A Risky Proposition

RISK IS EVERYWHERE. There’s a risk, for example, that volcanic ash will damage aircraft engines. So when a volcano erupted in Iceland in April 2010, concerns about the plume of volcanic ash disrupted air travel across Europe for about a week. Travelers, from the Prince of Wales to Miley Cyrus, were forced to adjust their plans.

In the interconnected world of the 21st century, that risk also put Kenyan flower farm employees out of work because their crop couldn’t reach Europe, and forced Nissan to halt production of some models in Japan because certain parts weren’t available.

Welcome to global systemic risk, where virtually every person on Earth can be affected by disruption in interdependent systems as diverse as electricity transmission, computer networks, food and water supplies, transportation, health care, and finance. The risks are complicated and little understood.

TextA core group of about two dozen faculty members from across the University — along with postdoctoral research fellows, graduate students, undergraduates and outside researchers — has come together for a three-year research effort focused on developing a comprehensive and cohesive framework for the study of such risks.

The Global Systemic Risk research community, with financial support from the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, is working to better understand the nature of risk, the structure of increasingly fragile systems and the ability to anticipate and prevent catastrophic consequences.

“You can’t isolate any of these systems,” said Miguel Centeno, the Musgrave Professor of Sociology and head of the research community. “They’re all complex systems complexly put together. We’ve been running this unique experiment for the past 50 years or so, and we’re all dependent on it continuing to work.”

Making systems stronger

The goals of the community, now in its second year, include research, course development, conferences and even a movie series that will give the public a chance to use popular disaster films as a point of entry to discuss the serious issues of systemic risk.

Thayer Patterson, a research fellow and a member of the group’s executive committee, said the work that emerges should be useful not just for academics, but also policymakers, leaders in business and finance, and the public.

“This isn’t just an academic pursuit; it’s an intellectual exercise that has the potential for real consequences in terms of making our systems stronger and more robust to the inevitable shocks that they will experience,” Patterson said.

Policymakers, for example, may learn more about the ways dangerous unintended consequences can arise from seemingly sensible laws and regulations, Patterson said. And business leaders may better understand the importance of realistic risk assessment.

“We want to celebrate the risk takers and the innovators and the fruits of their labors,” Patterson said. “We are by no means doomsayers, but we hope to provide more information to people on the robustness and fragility of systems.”

Discovery2014_Centeno_full

What are the most fragile global systems? Centeno points to two that concern him the most: the Internet and global health.

While the Internet itself is fairly robust by design, Centeno said, many other crucial systems — such as electrical grids, financial institutions and transportation systems — rely on the Internet, and a catastrophic failure there could quickly have dangerous effects worldwide.

And the ease of global travel today raises the risk that disease can spread unchecked around the world before health authorities have an opportunity to react, he said.

“We now have the conditions under which we could create some kind of pandemic very quickly that we would not be able to resolve,” Centeno said.

Tackling research

The research community includes faculty members from 17 academic departments and five interdisciplinary programs at Princeton. Each brings his or her own background and approach to the topic.

Adam Elga, a professor of philosophy, said he has been interested in the topic of risk for several years and previously co-taught a course on the philosophy of extreme risk. That course piqued his interest in the idea of cascading failures, in which a series of small failures builds within a system and results in a catastrophic failure.

Elga is conducting a series of experiments this year with financial support from the research community that examines how individuals assess risks in situations where there is a small, but real, risk of catastrophic failure.

Elga’s hypothesis is that many experiment participants will struggle to accurately account for the risk of catastrophic failure. In the same way, Elga said, policymakers and the public can be lulled into complacency by the fact that important global systems haven’t experienced catastrophic failure — even though the risk is real and the potential consequences devastating.

“There is some evidence that people aren’t going to be scared enough by the bad outcomes until they’ve already been hit by one,” Elga said. “But once you get hit by a really big one, it’s too late and the game is over.”

Elga said he has derived benefits from the research community beyond direct support for his work.

“It’s been stimulating to hear people from adjacent fields such as psychology, to talk to people who have thought about this from mathematical and engineering perspectives,” he said.

Another participant is Stanley Katz, a lecturer with the rank of professor in public and international affairs, who has begun applying ideas about risk from the research community in his study on philanthropy.

How does a major philanthropic donor, for example, decide between spending $100 million in Africa on bed nets, which have a known effect on the transmission of malaria, or spending the same sum on an unproven vaccine that could either be much more effective than bed nets or be a total failure? Such decisions, Katz said, are based, in part, on assessments of risk.

“The field hasn’t ordinarily been studied this way,” Katz said. “This is relatively new language, and this is one of the things that appeals to me about the project. I’m learning a lot from scholars in social sciences who are much more accustomed to working with the language of risk.”

No easy answers

Vu Chau, a member of the Class of 2015, is an undergraduate fellow with the research community and received funding for summer research on risk-related topics. The economics major is working to understand the impact that policies the Federal Reserve implemented in response to the 2007-08 financial crisis had on emerging markets.

“Before the crisis, the common thinking was that we need only design policies and regulations that focus on individual agents such as banks, because the larger system would be safe if each of its components is safe,” Chau said. “However, the crisis taught us that even when individual parts act prudently and follow regulations, the whole system can fail under certain conditions. This is precisely why systemic risk is dangerous and deserves the kind of attention it is getting.”

Systemic risk is a topic that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, Centeno said.

Warning systems — such as better measures of financial risk to avert another financial crisis — can be helpful but are limited. Regulations — such as environmental rules to slow global warming — can cause unintended problems.

Safety nets — such as redundant equipment on power grids — are expensive and can actually increase risky behavior.

Shut-off switches — such as quarantines to limit the spread of disease — are practically and ethically challenging.

“Maybe the way to approach this isn’t that we need a better financial system or a better food system,” Centeno said. “Maybe we need a better system as a whole. Increasingly, you can’t divide these domains.”

So while the research community won’t be able to solve the problems of systemic risk during its three-year term, Centeno said its role is both clear and important: “The task of a research community is to create interdisciplinary conversations about a set of problems or issues so you can better understand what you’re looking at. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

-By Michael Hotchkiss

Philosophical differences: What does physics tell us about the real world?

IN COLLEGE, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY Hans Halvorson was dismayed by the idea of having to choose between science and the humanities, so he blazed his own path, combining philosophy with physics and mathematics.

Why are philosophers fascinated by science? As a cultural phenomenon, we cannot ignore the power of science. It has transformed our world into what we know today. But I believe it is not the only source of knowledge. A lot of what we know comes through ordinary life experiences.

What questions are you working on? I’m interested in what physics tells us about the real world. There are two opposing views. One view is that our theories perfectly describe the reality we see around us — this is known as realism. But there are many cases where what we thought we knew from science turned out to be wrong, for example when Einstein’s theory of relativity trumped the Newtonian view of space and time. The opposing view is called antirealism, and says that physical theories are good at making predictions that we can use in our technologies, but they do not describe reality. I take the view that there must be something right on both sides, and that there may be a way to translate one view to another. A question I am looking at now is whether two competing theories of the structure of the universe, string theory and quantum loop gravity, have a common core.

How does your training help you think about these ideas? My Ph.D. dissertation was on the foundations of quantum mechanics. But I wanted to do something new, and I was fortunate to receive an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation award that enabled me to spend a year at the Mathematical Research Institute at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands learning an area of mathematics known as category theory. Now I am applying these concepts to the philosophy of science and the debate between realism and antirealism.

How is this of value to the public? I think part of my job is to help people understand how science fits into their lives, especially in the United States where there is tension between science and religion. I understand the difficulty of reconciling beliefs with what we learn from science. But it is also not good to just believe what science says, because it is always changing. Science is full of unknown discoveries.

–By Catherine Zandonella

Kripke by John Burgess

Kripke by John Burgess

Princeton Professor of Philosophy John Burgess offers a thorough and self-contained guide to all of Kripke’s published books and his most important philosophical papers, old and new.

Saul Kripke has been a major influence on analytic philosophy and allied fields for a half-century and more. His early masterpiece, Naming and Necessity, reversed the pattern of two centuries of philosophizing about the necessary and the contingent. Although much of his work remains unpublished, several major essays have now appeared in print, most recently in his long-awaited collection Philosophical Troubles.

The logician and philosopher John Burgess, the John N. Woodhull Professor of Philosophy, offers a thorough and self-contained guide to all of Kripke’s published books and his most important philosophical papers, old and new. Burgess also provides an authoritative but nontechnical account of Kripke’s influential contributions to the study of modal logic and logical paradoxes. Although Kripke has been anything but a system builder, Burgess expertly uncovers the connections between different parts of his oeuvre. Kripke is shown grappling, often in opposition to existing traditions, with mysteries surrounding the nature of necessity, rule-following, and the conscious mind, as well as with intricate and intriguing puzzles about identity, belief and self-reference. Clearly contextualizing the full range of Kripke’s work, Burgess outlines, summarizes and surveys the issues raised by each of the philosopher’s major publications.

Publisher: Polity, 2012 (Cover image and text courtesy of the publisher.)