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Harvard Professors Think Big in Third Annual Forum

By JOE B. LERER, Contributing Writer

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.

American history professor Jill Lepore discussed the board game created by Harvard dropout Milton Bradley in 1860, originally titled “The Checkered Game of Life.” She traced the genesis of Bradley’s game, now well-known as “The Game of Life,” from its roots in ancient Indian games to its latest incarnation, the 2007 edition “The Game of Life: Twists and Turns.”

Lepore used the lighthearted parlor game to analyze a big idea indeed—the transformation of the meaning of life over time.

“Most questions about life and death have no answers,” Lepore said. “No one has ever answered these questions and nobody ever will, but everyone tries. Trying is the human condition and history is the chronicle of asking.”

In the latest version, Lepore said, “Life is aimless. There is a place to begin called ‘start.’ You cannot die. You cannot grow old. You cannot sin. You cannot be good. There is no end. What is the meaning of life in the game of twist and turns? Technically, the game is endless, because its only object is to experience all that life has to offer.”

But human and evolutionary biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman ’86 said in his talk that people do have a definite path—and it points toward junk food.

Lieberman said that industrialized humans are evolutionarily inclined to eat up “all the Twinkies and sweets that come our way.”

“For most of evolutionary history, there was a struggle of human survival. We didn’t evolve to like exercising or celery,” Lieberman said. “Recently, we are able to indulge these desires to an extent that natural selection never let us in the past.”

He blamed industrialization for ushering in overconsumption, higher rates of certain diseases, and widespread laziness.

English professor Stephen J. Greenblatt discussed Shakespeare’s remarkably innovative use of language and the staying power of the written word.

“Literature carries, as Shakespeare understood, a unique record of experience,” Greenblatt said. “To grapple with literature is to speak with the dead.”

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.”

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