Mailboxes in the Social Science Research Building. (Photography by Joy Olivia Miller)
Readers sound off

Readers comment on the ethics and technics of astronomical skyscapes, how we die, religion and the law, the history of student life at Ida Noyes, and more.

It was with great interest I read Elizabeth Kessler’s (PhD’06) piece “The Astronomical Sublime” (Mar–Apr/13). The subject is fascinating, and I have been arguing with my father-in-law for over a decade about these issues. The Hubble images have been a fantastic tool in elevating the mission’s profile and education value. They are also a liability; the editorial outlets that publish these images have violated their own ethical rules when publishing.

Published editorial material relies on a number of shared assumptions between the viewer and the publisher. In terms of photographs the rules are clear (and written down at most publications); composite images, time-lapse exposures, using light outside of the visual spectrum, and manually colorized images must be clearly labeled as such, if they are not immediately obvious to the viewer.

I think it is a fascinating question: why does the news media violate its own rules of conduct when publishing Hubble and other scientific images (such as colored scanning electron microscope captures)? What concerns me is that the public enthusiastically embraces these images based on false assumptions. Americans still trust the integrity of scientists. According to a recent poll taken by Scientific American and Nature, the group most trusted for providing accurate information on important issues in society was scientists. Pretty pictures of the cosmos are great, but it is paramount for the media and NASA to ensure scientifically accurate descriptions that educate rather than mislead the public.

Adam Nadel, AB’90
Jackson Heights, New York


A pioneer remembered

I smiled broadly when I read Elizabeth Kessler’s article praising the Hubble Space Telescope’s spectacular images, because I knew that they were brought to us, in part, by one of the University of Chicago’s many silent heroes. In late 2004, Perry Greenfield, the manager of the scientific software group working on the Hubble Space Telescope, contacted my young neuroscience postdoc John Hunter (PhD’01). The Hubble community had a formidable problem to solve: how could they send their spectacular images of the universe to astronomers all over the world so that they could be received and analyzed on their various computer systems—Windows, Apple, LINUX, and UNIX? They had hired a private company to solve this problem, but the project failed to meet the diverse needs of the world’s astronomers.

Throughout his graduate work in neurobiology at the University of Chicago, John had written many graphing routines in Python, a language that runs on all of these systems. He stored them in a personal library on the web he called Matplotlib. Occasionally, other graduate students would ask if they could use his programs for their own work. 

Word got out, and, after a while, John had thousands of programmers and researchers from all areas of science and business using his programs. Perry Greenfield was one of them. He thought that John’s Matplotlib could be the phoenix that would bring this project out of the ashes. John asked me if he could take a hiatus from our work, and I enthusiastically said yes. The Space Telescope Science Institute allocated a handful of programmers to collaborate with John, and a few months later they had an extensive program for analyzing Hubble images throughout the world, powered by John’s Python programs. (Matplotlib now has more than 1.4 million downloads.)

We have all benefited because of John Hunter’s belief in the altruism of the open-source programming community.  John may be viewing the sublime beauty of the cosmos from a different perspective, because he tragically passed into history last year. Still, his work inspires and lives on in all of us.

V. Leo Towle
UChicago Department of Neurology


Articles of faith

Regarding “The Spirit of the Law” (Mar–Apr/13), Brian Leiter has it exactly right. The religion clauses of the First Amendment were intended to guard against religious persecution, not to create a religious exemption from laws of general applicability.

The late professor Philip Kurland (under whom I had the great privilege to study) set forth the proper approach more than 50 years ago: “The freedom and separation clauses [of the First Amendment] should be read as stating a single precept: that government cannot utilize religion as a standard for action or inaction because these clauses, read together as they should be, prohibit classification in terms of religion either to confer a benefit or impose a burden.” (“Of Church and State and the Supreme Court,” 29 U. Chi. L. Rev. 96 [1961]).

The court was correct in Employment Division v. Smith, but the law concerning religious exemptions has been inconsistent to say the least. Our government has strayed so often from sound principle in this area that we have reached the point where Catholic employers now claim the right to deny employees who do not work in a religious capacity—and may not even share the faith—insurance benefits to which they are legally entitled. To do otherwise, the Catholics insist, is a denial of their religious freedom. It is nothing of the sort.

Most people understand that the First Amendment prohibits government from favoring one faith over another but have difficulty grasping that it also prohibits government from favoring the religious over the secular. A proper interpretation of the document demands government neutrality between the two; nothing more and nothing less. That Leiter’s advocacy of this interpretation would be considered “provocative” shows how widespread misunderstanding of the religion clauses has become.

James A. Rauen, AB’82
Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina


The art of dying

Thanks very much for “Decomposure” (Mar–Apr/13). That excellent article is very timely, for my wife is now two months dead. She was cremated by the Neptune Society, which was excellent in all respects. She now rests in a red paint bucket—she was an artist—atop our upright piano in the bedroom where we can chat and I can bring her her morning cup of coffee. She was 83, as I am, and thanks to our Buddhist practice, acknowledged the cycle of life and death.

She had been chronically ill and in daily discomfort and pain for many years but went to her studio to work every day until Christmas day. She was in the intensive care unit for five days after Christmas and in hospice care about two weeks before she died. Hospice care allowed her to die at home with a view of her garden and the company of me and our two cats. Hospice could not have done a better job in assisting with her dying. She faced death without aversion or fear and said to me one evening as we were retiring, “I’ll soon learn the Great Mystery,” flashing her brilliant smile.

M. F. “Pete” Groat, AB’51
Lagunitas, California


Lovely piece. While reading the article, I was struck by the degree to which Caitlin Doughty’s (AB’12, Class of 2006) ideas about navigating death jibe with Jewish traditional practice. There is no embalming or open casket. A burial committee from the community washes (and watches) the body, which is wrapped in a simple linen shroud and buried in a plain wood casket that is designed to allow for decomposition. Mourners shovel the first layer of dirt onto the casket; there’s no mystery as to what’s going to happen to the body. I always thought that if I accomplished nothing else in this world, at least I would make good fertilizer. That said, however, I discovered when my mother died that her wood casket was actually enclosed in a cement box for burial in a Jewish cemetery; tradition was trumped by New Jersey law.

Carol Berkower, AB’85


Decomposure” was interesting and informative. Can’t wait to look up her work. For further reading, I recommend The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (W. W. Norton, 1997) by Thomas Lynch. Lynch is an undertaker, poet, essayist, and philosopher who offers an insider’s view of death and life.

Bertil K. Hogstrom (parent)
Douglassville, Pennsylvania


Mission impossible

Needle and Threat” (Jan–Feb/13) poses the ethical problem of testing the immunization of children against anthrax versus the improbable threat of anthrax spores being used as a biological warfare vector. Any reaction to the vaccine by children is unknown and the value of the vaccine to a child, even if immunized, is probably minuscule. The ethical answer is simple: present the honest science and reasons to Mormon parents and let them decide.

A medical geneticist once asked a random sample of New Yorkers for a finger prick of blood and received 7 percent compliance. He moved to Salt Lake City. There, a pathologist was conducting a breast cancer survey that required three large gauge needle sticks through each breast. Volunteers were divided into those genetically at risk and controls not at genetic risk. Here, the rationale for the test was explained to the church, which then requested volunteers. Although the control group would get no medical benefit from this scary and painful assay, the compliance rate for the control volunteers was 80 percent. These control group women believed there was a very small outside chance that their contribution would help mankind.

I live in southern Oregon wherein, unlike Mormons, many parents actively prevent their children from getting mumps, measles, whooping cough, and other standard vaccines even though the risks are verified and low, the individual benefits are great, and the altruistic benefits to the population are great. No matter how prestigious an ethics committee of 13 the federal government appoints to consider permitting childhood anthrax vaccinations, this mission is impossible given the ethical diversity between subcultures in the USA.

Gerald Holmquist, SB’64, SM’67
Shady Cove, Oregon


Stern warning

I took Richard Stern’s Creative Writing (Short Stories) course in winter quarter 1975. He liked my work and so I asked him to serve as a reader for my BA paper in General Studies in the Humanities. That turned out to be a mistake on one level, because he graded the paper B, which denied me program honors. He described the paper as “a magnificent failure.” The paper was an unfinished novel sort of like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that had one chapter imitating the sound of a running motorcycle phonetically. Perhaps a B was generous.

I was on the swim team and on one occasion had chosen to attend Stern’s class rather than participate in a home meet. The class was interrupted by the team manager bursting in and requesting me to please come to the meet, because the score was so close. If I could hie myself to Bartlett Pool in time to swim a leg in the final relay, we might beat Grinnell College (or whomever). At first, Stern looked perturbed and began to harrumph about the interruption, but then he smiled and shooed me out with the parting remark, “If you return to class, please towel off.”

Jeff Rasley, AB’75


The write stuff

I was quite intrigued by the Core’s article on Taft House (“Domestic Writing,” Winter 2013), which provides a welcoming environment for creative writing. When I attended the College, we had no such facility. Nor at the time did I have a notion that one day I would become a writer. This despite the fact that while serving overseas during WW II, I was writing letters home daily, nearly 1,000 of them, that, without my knowledge, my mother had saved. Nor could I have imagined that in the late ’90s they would be published in a book, Letters from the Good War (Stones Point Press, 1997).

Indeed, Professor Reuel Denney, with whom I studied composition, encouraged me to become a writer. But comparing myself with the classic writers I was then studying, I concluded I could never measure up. Eventually I became a career businessman, all the while writing short stories, novels, and essays and simply filing them away. In the late ’90s I began writing plays, one of which was set near the University. Its characters were based on University faculty members and fellow students that I had known at the time. Three years ago the play was staged for five nights by a prize-winning theater company in Massachusetts where it received a standing ovation. Talk about redemption.

For the past 30 years, after selling my company, I’ve devoted myself to writing full time, with a 12th book coming out early this year. I mention all this because you may not realize how deeply the College experience has affected its graduates, leading to all sorts of creative careers. I learned that the University had prepared me for activities that I never dreamed of pursuing. For instance, I found that my background in the humanities was perfect for someone who had to deal with employees, customers, banks, etc., because business is really all about relationships. And so is short story and novel writing.

By the way, back then tuition at the University was $500 a year and the GI Bill paid a monthly stipend of $80.

Keep up the good work you’re doing at the Core. It’s a delightful magazine.

Hugh Aaron, AB’51
Cushing, Maine


Give ideas a chance

The recent debate in “Letters” (Nov–Dec/12) between Robert Michaelson, SB’66, AM’73, and Stephen J. Breckley, MBA’68, John R. Flanery, MBA’06, and William P. McCoach, MBA’75, prompted me to write this letter.

It would be the most disappointing outcome possible if UChicago comes to restrict itself to a certain ideological “brand” on any issue of import. UChicago has a storied intellectual past, earned through a dogged dedication to the maintenance of the most essential of free markets, the free market for ideas. But Michaelson, quoting Hyman Minsky, SB’41, in his response to Breckley, et al., reflects on the decline in the intellectual environment at UChicago. His implication is clear. While UChicago’s historically open intellectual environment deserves much of the credit for Milton Friedman’s (AM’33) later successes, that environment no longer holds.

It’s worth recalling that Friedman’s ideas regarding stabilization policy were considered radical (even foolish) by many at their original promulgation. But his ideas were tolerated until they could gain credence and add to our knowledge of macroeconomics. I would hope that the same tolerance would be extended to budding Nobelists at UChicago today.

The free market for ideas is always under attack. There are always those who want to put an end to debate, no matter how intellectually productive that debate might be. We should not let the debate end. The world has much to learn from UChicago and the Chicago view. But the Chicago view is a work in progress. It must remain open to new ideas. There is more yet to be learned.

Crescat scientia; vita excolatur: Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.

Patrick Feehan, MBA’91
Columbia, Missouri


Excellent adventures

I was delighted to read that Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph are alive and well and even more adventurous than I had imagined (“A Passage to India,” Jan–Feb/13). Theirs were my most memorable classes in the University of Chicago political science department in the early 1970s. I hope more details of the journey will become available in the future.

Nancy Ruth, AM’73
Arlington Heights, Illinois

The complete text of the Rudolphs’ travel notes on their journey from Salzburg to Peshawar is now available in PDF form.—Ed.


Two views on renovation

I lived in the Chicago Theological Seminary and knew members of the CTS community many years ago (“Informed Fearlessness,” UChicago News for Alumni and Friends, April 9, 2013; see also “Economic Model” in this issue). The building is beautiful and it saddens me deeply that it has been converted into a temple where the morally sterile economics of Milton Friedman will be venerated. It would have been better to tear the old place down!

Donald Seekins, AM’72, PhD’80
Waipahu, Hawaii


I lived in the married students’ quarters at CTS, I shopped in the bookstore, I kibitzed with fellow students in its common space—what an exciting new life for the handsome cluster of buildings on the corner of the main campus!

Janet Varner Gunn, DB’62, AM’64
Portland, Maine


Research resources for alumni

Many alumni have expressed an interest in having remote access to electronic resources, and I am very pleased to inform you that the Library has partnered with the Alumni Association to make this possible. University of Chicago alumni are now able to access five important research databases and thousands of publications from any computer with an Internet connection. The databases include EBSCO Academic Search–Alumni Edition; EBSCO Business Source–Alumni Edition; Articles Plus–Alumni Edition; Project Muse; and SAGE Journals Online.

We are particularly pleased that this broad range of important resources will help alumni in many different fields to begin their research. Visit the Library's website for information on creating a CNet ID and accessing these resources.

Judith Nadler
Director and University Librarian
UChicago Library


Clock of ages

Two places come to mind when I think of Martyl Langsdorf, the seemingly immortal painter who died in late March at the age of 96. She defined the first—Schaumburg, a suburb that didn’t really exist until she arrived in 1953. The second—the University—inadvertently defined her life’s work. But when she told it, these seemingly opposite ends of the earth (or if you must, the greater Chicago metropolitan area) were somehow perfectly intertwined.

She arrived on campus by way of marriage, her husband, nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf Jr., summoned by Enrico Fermi to help build the first atomic bomb. This, of course, would leave Langsdorf and his Met Lab colleagues on the Manhattan Project (U of C wing) greatly conflicted. To calm their consciences, at the conclusion of World War II they launched the University-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a pamphlet-cum-magazine meant to educate the public about the urgent danger their creation had wrought. (It was at the Bulletin that, as deputy editor and web editor, I met Martyl years later.)

Here, however, their brilliance wasn’t enough. They needed a visual aid. And so they turned to Martyl, who until that moment had primarily painted whichever natural wonder had caught her eye. “I’m pretty sure I was the only artist those scientists knew,” she joked to me years later.

Martyl expressed her husband’s fear via four simple dots and two straight lines (one black, the other white), which she assembled as the face of a clock that she set to seven minutes to midnight (midnight being the time at which the world would end thanks to nuclear brinksmanship between the United States and the Soviet Union).

Over the years, the mainstream media would regard her allegorical timepiece as the Doomsday Clock and Martyl herself as the Clock Lady—an unfair designation given the beauty and success of her abstract landscapes but a distinction that she enjoyed nonetheless. She intimated as much whenever I saw her, usually at the dining room table of her longtime Schaumburg home, a local architectural marvel/tourist attraction called the Schweikher House. There, a drink in hand, she spun non sequiturs into poetry and epitomized the staying power of a life well lived.

Josh Schollmeyer
West Hollywood, California


Noyes life

In spring quarter 1952 a group of us students held a series of meetings in Ida Noyes Hall and together planned a student social gathering there for a Friday or Saturday night sometime that quarter. It was publicized by printed posters with the date, location, and a large exclamation point as the only other content. I recall visiting fraternity houses at lunchtimes and announcing this event. Perhaps other students announced it in the women’s and men’s living quarters. It turned out to be very well attended, and it seemed that students had a great time together.

Ida Noyes Hall at that time was rarely used, or so it seemed to me. It had facilities (I recall the swimming pool, especially) that could be activated for student use that evening. After graduating in 1952 I returned to California and began law school that fall. Sporadically I would glimpse an article in the Magazine commenting about subsequent uses of the building for student events.

Did our student efforts possibly lead to the University’s having followed up and opened Ida Noyes Hall as an ongoing place for student activities? As more years passed, I began to wonder who brought our proposed event to the administration and requested that the facilities be activated for student use.

More time has passed, and the question I now pose is whether we as a group of students, noticing this large building available for a student gathering and thinking together how great it might be for our socially hungry students to enjoy simply spending an evening together with activities and programs developed by our group—or whether the administration thought this might be a way to encourage a campus student event, and delegated one or more members of our group to enlist a group of students in the planning of such an event.

Unfortunately this all happened 61 years ago, and we can only wonder how many of us in that planning group are still available to share their experience of how it all came about. Was it the University who set up the idea—or did we as students create this whole effort and later engage the administration in providing the facilities, building prep, etc.? I welcome memories from fellow alumni who worked on this event or simply recall their being there that evening.

Richard M. Janopaul, AB’52
Yukon, Oklahoma


The University of Chicago Magazine welcomes letters about its contents or about the life of the University. Letters for publication must be signed and may be edited for space, clarity, and civility. To provide a range of views and voices, we encourage letter writers to limit themselves to 300 words or fewer. Write: Editor, The University of Chicago Magazine, 401 North Michigan Avenue, Suite 1000, Chicago, IL 60611. Or e-mail: