As Joseph K. Blitzstein took to the stage of Sanders Theatre Thursday evening for the fourth annual “Harvard Thinks Big,” he was greeted by wolf-whistles and cardboard signs emblazoned with his name. Firing the audience up was the anticipation of a 12-minute speech on how all probability is conditional, laced with humor and data.
Blitzstein, a professor of the practice in statistics, set the tone for an evening of “big ideas” that brought together both the comedic and existential natures of some of Harvard’s top academics. Speaking on topics ranging from Romans to breast milk, six faculty members and Harvard Thinks Big’s first student speaker had a packed crowd, alternatively roaring with laughter and questioning conditions of humanity.
Katherine J. Hinde, assistant professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, began by promising to explain why “mammals suck way better.” She proceeded to outline the advantages of breast milk, ultimately calling for greater research and societal infrastructure to give mothers the choice of breastfeeding.
Classics and history professor Emma Dench took a more interactive approach and asked her spectators to repeat the age-old dictum, “Latin is a language as dead as dead can be/It killed off all the Romans and now it’s killing me.”
She then explored the implications for modern citizens of studying a civilization as distant and complex as Rome—one that created democracy and took fun out of dancing dwarves.
“You begin to see the gaps in logic, the blind spots in our own society,” said Dench said.
Some of the speakers were more contemplative, including Annemarie E. Ryu ’13, who concentrates in Anthropology. She cited many of her ventures, including work she has done to promote the sale of jackfruit in the global market, to urge her audience to “Think big,” and “Act now, not later.”
Professor of Romance Languages and Literature and of African and African American Studies Doris Sommer argued that “culture changes the world.”
She gave the startling example of Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia, who managed to curb traffic deaths by replacing corrupt police with pantomime artists.
“Without pleasure, there is no lasting cultural change, no lasting political change,” she said.
Roberto M. Unger, professor of law, implored humans to delegate more tasks to machines to preserve their most precious resource: time.
Concluding the event with a fervent call to action was Michael Puett, professor of Chinese history. Claiming that his generation mistakenly thought it had “figured things out” after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Puett entreated students to move beyond traditional modes of thinking.
“We have left you with a very foolishly complacent way of thinking about the world,” Puett said. “But the world we left you with—bad as it is—can still be saved.”
Audience members had a chance to reflect on the event in real time throughout the night, tweeting comments tagged #htb4 that were flashed onscreen between speakers. Students said they enjoyed the evening’s diversity of perspectives.
“We tend to have small academic niches here,” said Abigail E. Hook ’13. “This was a great way to broaden our perspectives from professors I never would have taken a class from.”
—Staff writer Anneli L. Tostar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.