Posts

Photo of artist rendering of SO-2 star.

Einstein’s general relativity theory is questioned but still stands ‘for now,’ team reports

Photo of artist rendering of SO-2 star.

A star known as S0-2 (the blue and green object in this artist’s rendering) made its closest approach to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way in 2018. Artist’s rendering by Nicolle Fuller/National Science Foundation.

More than 100 years after Albert Einstein published his iconic theory of general relativity, it is beginning to fray at the edges, said Andrea Ghez, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. Now, in the most comprehensive test of general relativity near the monstrous black hole at the center of our galaxy, Ghez and her research team report July 25 in the journal Science that Einstein’s theory of general relativity holds up.

“Einstein’s right, at least for now,” said Ghez, a co-lead author of the research. “We can absolutely rule out Newton’s law of gravity. Our observations are consistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. However, his theory is definitely showing vulnerability. It cannot fully explain gravity inside a black hole, and at some point we will need to move beyond Einstein’s theory to a more comprehensive theory of gravity that explains what a black hole is.”

Einstein’s 1915 theory of general relativity holds that what we perceive as the force of gravity arises from the curvature of space and time. The scientist proposed that objects such as the sun and the Earth change this geometry. Einstein’s theory is the best description of how gravity works, said Ghez, whose UCLA-led team of astronomers has made direct measurements of the phenomenon near a supermassive black hole — research Ghez describes as “extreme astrophysics.”

The laws of physics, including gravity, should be valid everywhere in the universe, said Ghez, who added that her research team is one of only two groups in the world to watch a star known as S0-2 make a complete orbit in three dimensions around the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The full orbit takes 16 years, and the black hole’s mass is about 4 million times that of the sun.

The researchers say their work is the most detailed study ever conducted into the supermassive black hole and Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The key data in the research were spectra that Ghez’s team analyzed last April, May and September as her “favorite star” made its closest approach to the enormous black hole. Spectra, which Ghez described as the “rainbow of light” from stars, show the intensity of light and offer important information about the star from which the light travels. Spectra also show the composition of the star. These data were combined with measurements Ghez and her team have made over the last 24 years.

Spectra — collected at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii using a spectrograph built at UCLA by a team led by colleague James Larkin — provide the third dimension, revealing the star’s motion at a level of precision not previously attained. (Images of the star the researchers took at the Keck Observatory provide the two other dimensions.) Larkin’s instrument takes light from a star and disperses it, similar to the way raindrops disperse light from the sun to create a rainbow, Ghez said.

“What’s so special about S0-2 is we have its complete orbit in three dimensions,” said Ghez, who holds the Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics. “That’s what gives us the entry ticket into the tests of general relativity. We asked how gravity behaves near a supermassive black hole and whether Einstein’s theory is telling us the full story. Seeing stars go through their complete orbit provides the first opportunity to test fundamental physics using the motions of these stars.”

Ghez’s research team was able to see the co-mingling of space and time near the supermassive black hole. “In Newton’s version of gravity, space and time are separate, and do not co-mingle; under Einstein, they get completely co-mingled near a black hole,” she said.

“Making a measurement of such fundamental importance has required years of patient observing, enabled by state-of-the-art technology,” said Richard Green, director of the National Science Foundation’s division of astronomical sciences. For more than two decades, the division has supported Ghez, along with several of the technical elements critical to the research team’s discovery. “Through their rigorous efforts, Ghez and her collaborators have produced a high-significance validation of Einstein’s idea about strong gravity.”

Keck Observatory Director Hilton Lewis called Ghez “one of our most passionate and tenacious Keck users.” “Her latest groundbreaking research,” he said, “is the culmination of unwavering commitment over the past two decades to unlock the mysteries of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.”

The researchers studied photons — particles of light — as they traveled from S0-2 to Earth. S0-2 moves around the black hole at blistering speeds of more than 16 million miles per hour at its closest approach. Einstein had reported that in this region close to the black hole, photons have to do extra work. Their wavelength as they leave the star depends not only on how fast the star is moving, but also on how much energy the photons expend to escape the black hole’s powerful gravitational field. Near a black hole, gravity is much stronger than on Earth.

Ghez was given the opportunity to present partial data last summer, but chose not to so that her team could thoroughly analyze the data first. “We’re learning how gravity works. It’s one of four fundamental forces and the one we have tested the least,” she said. “There are many regions where we just haven’t asked, how does gravity work here? It’s easy to be overconfident and there are many ways to misinterpret the data, many ways that small errors can accumulate into significant mistakes, which is why we did not rush our analysis.”

Ghez, a 2008 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, studies more than 3,000 stars that orbit the supermassive black hole. Hundreds of them are young, she said, in a region where astronomers did not expect to see them.

It takes 26,000 years for the photons from S0-2 to reach Earth. “We’re so excited, and have been preparing for years to make these measurements,” said Ghez, who directs the UCLA Galactic Center Group. “For us, it’s visceral, it’s now — but it actually happened 26,000 years ago!”

This is the first of many tests of general relativity Ghez’s research team will conduct on stars near the supermassive black hole. Among the stars that most interest her is S0-102, which has the shortest orbit, taking 11 1/2 years to complete a full orbit around the black hole. Most of the stars Ghez studies have orbits of much longer than a human lifespan.

Ghez’s team took measurements about every four nights during crucial periods in 2018 using the Keck Observatory — which sits atop Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano and houses one of the world’s largest and premier optical and infrared telescopes. Measurements are also taken with an optical-infrared telescope at Gemini Observatory and Subaru Telescope, also in Hawaii. She and her team have used these telescopes both on site in Hawaii and remotely from an observation room in UCLA’s department of physics and astronomy.

Black holes have such high density that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light. (They cannot be seen directly, but their influence on nearby stars is visible and provides a signature. Once something crosses the “event horizon” of a black hole, it will not be able to escape. However, the star S0-2 is still rather far from the event horizon, even at its closest approach, so its photons do not get pulled in.)

Photo of telescope pointing to the sky.

Lasers from the two Keck telescopes point in the direction of the center of our galaxy. Each laser creates an “artificial star” that astronomers can use to correct for the blurring caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. Photo: Ethan Tweedie

Ghez’s co-authors include Tuan Do, lead author of the Science paper, a UCLA research scientist and deputy director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group; Aurelien Hees, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar, now a researcher at the Paris Observatory; Mark Morris, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy; Eric Becklin, UCLA professor emeritus of physics and astronomy; Smadar Naoz, UCLA assistant professor of physics and astronomy; Jessica Lu, a former UCLA graduate student who is now a UC Berkeley assistant professor of astronomy; UCLA graduate student Devin Chu; Greg Martinez, UCLA project scientist; Shoko Sakai, a UCLA research scientist; Shogo Nishiyama, associate professor with Japan’s Miyagi University of Education; and Rainer Schoedel, a researcher with Spain’s Instituto de Astrofısica de Andalucıa.

The National Science Foundation has funded Ghez’s research for the last 25 years. More recently, her research has also been supported by the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation; as well as Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, and Howard and Astrid Preston.

In 1998, Ghez answered one of astronomy’s most important questions, helping to show that a supermassive black hole resides at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The question had been a subject of much debate among astronomers for more than a quarter of a century.

A powerful technology that Ghez helped to pioneer, called adaptive optics, corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time. With adaptive optics at Keck Observatory, Ghez and her colleagues have revealed many surprises about the environments surrounding supermassive black holes. For example, they discovered young stars where none was expected to be seen and a lack of old stars where many were anticipated. It’s unclear whether S0-2 is young or just masquerading as a young star, Ghez said.

In 2000, she and colleagues reported that for the first time, astronomers had seen stars accelerate around the supermassive black hole. In 2003, Ghez reported that the case for the Milky Way’s black hole had been strengthened substantially and that all of the proposed alternatives could be excluded.

In 2005, Ghez and her colleagues took the first clear picture of the center of the Milky Way, including the area surrounding the black hole, at Keck Observatory. And in 2017, Ghez’s research team reported that S0-2 does not have a companion star, solving another mystery.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Physical Sciences Dean Miguel García-Garibay has been elected a 2019 Fellow of the American Chemical Society

Photo of Miguel García-Garibay

Miguel García-Garibay, Dean of the UCLA College Division of Physical Sciences.

Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has been elected a 2019 fellow of the American Chemical Society, the ACS announced.

García-Garibay is a pioneer in research on molecular motion in crystals, molecular machines and green chemistry.

He has earned worldwide recognition in the fields of organic photochemistry, solid-state organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry. García-Garibay studies the interaction of light and molecules in crystals. Light can have enough energy to break and make bonds in molecules, and his research team has shown that crystals offer an opportunity to control the outcome of these chemical reactions. He is interested in the basic science of molecules in crystals.

His research has applications for green chemistry that may lead to the production of specialty chemicals that would be very difficult to produce by traditional methods due to their complex structures, as well as applications for molecular electronics and miniaturized devices. His research group has made advances in the field of artificial molecular machines and amphidynamic crystals, a term García-Garibay invented, referring to crystals built with molecules that have a combination of static and mobile components. His research is funded by the National Science Foundation, among other funding sources.

“I can get a precise picture of the molecules in the crystals, the precise arrangement of atoms, with almost no uncertainty,” García-Garibay said. “This provides a large level of control, which enables us to learn the different principles governing molecular functions at the nanoscale.”

He has won many honors for his research, including selection as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as numerous honors from the National Science Foundation and the American Chemical Society. He is a member of the California NanoSystems Institute and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, among other scholarly organizations.

ACS fellows are nominated by their peers and selected for their outstanding accomplishments in scientific research, education and public service. The 2019 fellows will be honored at a ceremony during the ACS national meeting in San Diego on Aug. 26.

This story originally appeared here.

Photo of Richard Kaner, with Maher El-Kady, holding a replica of an energy storage and conversion device the pair developed.

Creating electricity from snowfall and making hydrogen cars affordable

Photo of Richard Kaner, with Maher El-Kady, holding a replica of an energy storage and conversion device the pair developed.

Richard Kaner, with Maher El-Kady, holding a replica of an energy storage and conversion device the pair developed. Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson

Professor Richard Kaner and researcher Maher El-Kady have designed a series of remarkable devices. Their newest one creates electricity from falling snow. The first of its kind, this device is inexpensive, small, thin and flexible like a sheet of plastic.

“The device can work in remote areas because it provides its own power and does not need batteries,” said Kaner, the senior author who holds the Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation.“It’s a very clever device — a weather station that can tell you how much snow is falling, the direction the snow is falling and the direction and speed of the wind.”

The researchers call it a snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, or snow TENG. Findings about the device are published in the journal Nano Energy.

The device generates charge through static electricity. Static electricity occurs when you rub fur and a piece of nylon together and create a spark, or when you rub your feet on a carpet and touch a doorknob.

“Static electricity occurs from the interaction of one material that captures electrons and another that gives up electrons,” said Kaner, who is also a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering, and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. “You separate the charges and create electricity out of essentially nothing.”

Snow is positively charged and gives up electrons. Silicone — a synthetic rubber-like material that is composed of silicon atoms and oxygen atoms, combined with carbon, hydrogen and other elements — is negatively charged. When falling snow contacts the surface of silicone, that produces a charge that the device captures, creating electricity.

“Snow is already charged, so we thought, why not bring another material with the opposite charge and extract the charge to create electricity?” said El-Kady, assistant researcher of chemistry and biochemistry.

“After testing a large number of materials including aluminum foils and Teflon, we found that silicone produces more charge than any other material,” he said.

Approximately 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by snow each winter, El-Kady noted, during which time solar panels often fail to operate. The accumulation of snow reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the solar array, limiting their power output and rendering them less effective. The new device could be integrated into solar panels to provide a continuous power supply when it snows.

The device can be used for monitoring winter sports, such as skiing, to more precisely assess and improve an athlete’s performance when running, walking or jumping, Kaner said. It could usher in a new generation of self-powered wearable devices for tracking athletes and their performances. It can also send signals, indicating whether a person is moving.

The research team used 3-D printing to design the device, which has a layer of silicone and an electrode to capture the charge. The team believes the device could be produced at low cost given “the ease of fabrication and the availability of silicone,” Kaner said.

New device can create and store energy

Kaner, El-Kady and colleagues designed a device in 2017 that can use solar energy to inexpensively and efficiently create and store energy, which could be used to power electronic devices, and to create hydrogen fuel for eco-friendly cars.

The device could make hydrogen cars affordable for many more consumers because it produces hydrogen using nickel, iron and cobalt — elements that are much more abundant and less expensive than the platinum and other precious metals that are currently used to produce hydrogen fuel.

“Hydrogen is a great fuel for vehicles: It is the cleanest fuel known, it’s cheap and it puts no pollutants into the air — just water,” Kaner said. “And this could dramatically lower the cost of hydrogen cars.”

The technology could be part of a solution for large cities that need ways to store surplus electricity from their electrical grids. “If you could convert electricity to hydrogen, you could store it indefinitely,” Kaner said.

Kaner is among the world’s most influential and highly cited scientific researchers. He has also been selected as the recipient of the  American Institute of Chemists 2019 Chemical Pioneer Award, which honors chemists and chemical engineers who have made outstanding contributions that advance the science of chemistry or greatly impact the chemical profession.

Co-authors on the snow TENG work include Abdelsalam Ahmed, who conducted the research while completing his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, and Islam Hassan and Ravi Selvaganapathy at Canada’s McMaster University, as well as James Rusling, who is the Paul Krenicki professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut, and his research team.

More devices designed to solve pressing problems

Last year, Kaner and El-Kady published research on their design of the first fire-retardant, self-extinguishing motion sensor and power generator, which could be embedded in shoes or clothing worn by firefighters and others who work in harsh environments.

Kaner’s lab produced a separation membrane that separates oil from water and cleans up the debris left by oil fracking. The separation membrane is currently in more than 100 oil installations worldwide. Kaner conducted this work with Eric Hoek, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Laure Murat roils the #MeToo debate in France

Photo of Laure Murat

Laure Murat. Photo: Courtesy of Laure Murat

In a recent book, Director of the UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies Laure Murat argues that #MeToo is the first serious challenge to patriarchy in modern times, and dismisses the current discussion of #MeToo in France as a polemical misdirection. Instead, she calls for a genuine debate on the issues of sexual harassment and assault that engages French young people, men and women, philosophers and intellectuals.

Born and raised in Paris, Murat is a well-known independent author and intellectual in France, but has lived and worked in the United States for the last 12 years, where she is a UCLA professor of French and Francophone studies. As a result, she has a unique perspective on #MeToo and its divergent receptions in the United States and France.

Focusing on the issues

Her book, Une révolution sexuelle? Réflexions sur l’après-Weinstein [A Sexual Revolution? Reflections on the Weinstein Aftermath], has fueled an ongoing rancorous debate about #MeToo in France, with Muratappearing on leading French television and radio shows to discuss the book, while also being interviewed by multiple French newspapers and online publications.

To give American readers an idea of the nature of the debate in France, some 100 well-known French women — including actress Catherine Deneuve — published an open letter in the left-leaning Le Monde that rejected the #MeToo movement and defended men’s “freedom to pester.”

The month before Une révolution sexuelle? was released, French journalist Eugénie Bastié of the conservative Le Figaro newspaper published Le Porc Émissaire: Terreur ou contre-révolution? [Blame the Pig: Terror or Counter-Revolution?], which decries the #MeToo movement for its supposed encouragement of victimization. Rightly or wrongly, one sentence in Bastié’s book has become emblematic of the French critique of #MeToo: “Une main aux fesses n’a jamais tué personne, contrairement aux bonnes intentions qui pavent l’enfer des utopies [A hand on someone’s ass never killed anyone, contrary to the good intentions that pave utopian hells].”

In fact, the views of Murat and Bastié were compared by Elisabeth Philippe of Bibliobs in an article titled Où vont les femmes après #MeToo? Le match Eugénie Bastié – Laure Murat [Where are women headed after #MeToo? The Eugénie Bastié – Laure Murat Competition].

Renewed dialogue for the young generation

Murat argues that polemics are preventing a real debate on the issues of sexual harassment and assault in France, as made clear in a translation of En France, #MeToo est réduit à une caricature pour éviter le débat [In France, #MeToo is being reduced to a caricature to avoid debate], a Mediapart.fr interview conducted by Marine Turchi:

Today, one could say that France is the country of the non-debate. I am struck by the intellectual void and the deliberate desire of the media to extinguish the issues by means of false polemics.

Instead of posing good questions, they rekindle the war of the sexes and clichés of “hysterical feminists” and “poor men,” they invoke masculinity and the freedom to pester, they feel sorry for men who sexually harass women on the subway, they discuss the excesses and possible ambiguities of #MeToo while they haven’t begun to discuss the heart of the problem. They oppose X and Y, right and left, for and against. …

Far from reanimating the war of the sexes, the #MeToo movement is, on the contrary, an exciting opportunity to understand and resolve the gulf between men and women, the gaps in consent, the sufferings of misunderstood sexuality, the logic of domination and abuse of power that poison personal and professional relationships. It’s the promise of renewed dialogue for the young generation. I really like the proposal of Gloria Steinem: eroticize equality (in other words, not violence and oppression).

The #MeToo debate is far from over in either the United States or France. Murat’s book offers new perspectives as the conversation continues.

Visit https://ucla.in/2J6rUZy to read this article with links to the letters, interviews and news coverage mentioned.

Professor’s latest book examines the history of cities

Photo of Monica Smith

Monica Smith. Photo credit: Paul Connor

The only thing a person really needs to be an archaeologist is a good sense of observation, UCLA professor of anthropology Monica Smith proclaims in her most recent book, “Cities: The First 6,000 Years.”

Advanced degrees and research experience are useful of course, but successful fieldwork is rooted in “noticing,” she said.

Archaeologists are always looking down noticing traces of what’s been left behind, and the stories detritus can tell, she said. These days at UCLA that might mean traces of glitter bombs launched by graduates during the last several weeks.

“We walk along and there’s all this glitter on the ground, and even though it gets cleaned away, you can never get it all so then you start to see little traces of glitter everywhere, because people are tracking it on their shoes all around campus,” Smith said. “We’re not only walking through an archaeological site, we’re making one.”

Smith is amused at the thought of future archaeologists encountering and interpreting the meaning behind those trace elements of shimmer in the dust around this particular area in one of Earth’s largest cities.

In vivid style, Smith’s latest book examines ways in which human civilization has organized itself into city life during the last 6,000 years, a relatively short time span in the grand scheme of human existence. Today, more than half of the world’s population resides in cities, and that number will continue to grow. But that wasn’t always so.

In “Cities,” Smith tracks the ways metropolitan hubs in different parts of the world emerged unrelated to one another, but in eerily similar forms, revealing the inherent similarities of humans’ needs regardless of what part of the world their civilization evolved.

“I started asking myself, ‘Why do these places all look the same even though they’re different times, different areas, different cultures and different languages?’” she said. “What is it about our human cognitive capacity that leads us to have the same form over and over and over again?”

She imagines how the first Spanish warriors to arrive in Cuzco in Peru, or Tenochtitlan in present day Mexico City, encountered the layout of ancient Inca and A

ztec cities, with shops and open squares and marketplaces resembling what they would see at home — despite the cultures never having had contact before.

“The similarities suggest that humans developed cities because it was the only way for a large number of people to live together in a single place where they could all get something new they wanted, whether that was a job, entertainment, medical care or education,” Smith said.

For the purposes of her analysis, Smith defines a city as a place with a dense population of multiple ethnicities; a diverse economy with an abundant variety of readily available goods; buildings and spaces of religion or ritual; a vertical building landscape that encompasses residential homes, courts, schools and government offices; formal entertainment venues; open grounds and multipurpose spaces; broad avenues and thoroughfares for movement.

Before cities, the human population was scattered across larger agrarian swaths, with families having everything they needed to survive in their own homes. People would come together for trading festivals or sacred ceremonies. These most likely began to last longer and longer, Smith said, creating a permanent collective settlement around places conducive to providing food, water, shelter and entertainment. Humans essentially took the bold step of living away from their immediate food supply to live in cities among larger groups of other humans.

Takeout food vendors have been a staple of cities stretching about as far back as you can get, with evidence of takeout food in ancient cities like Pompeii and Angkor, Smith notes in her book.

And cities allowed for the evolution of all kinds of new jobs and enterprises — bookkeeping, the service industry and managers — constituting a newly emergent middle class that found new opportunities to thrive in dense populations.

Some aspects of city life accelerated long-standing tendencies. Humans are a unique species in the animal kingdom due to our deep dependence on objects, a fact that aids archeologists in their work of noticing. Ancient cities also struggled with some of the same things we do in modern times — trash for example, Smith said.

“We think of ourselves as bad modern people because we have all this trash,” Smith said. “But everyone everywhere has trash. Ancient cities are full of trash. Modern cities are full of trash because people want more stuff.”

Archaeologists are obsessed with trash, Smith said. They learn much and encounter new questions from what was considered disposable to our ancestors.

Smith’s book also offers a descriptive window into day-to-day life on an archaeological dig, sharing challenges and the excitement of new technologies that help identify potential dig sites. People working to excavate subway tunnels and building foundations in modern Athens, Rome, Mexico City, Istanbul, Paris and other places are constantly finding new evidence of these metropolises’ earliest incarnations.

Much like current generations of young adults and children who cannot imagine a world without the internet, cities are here to stay, Smith said.

“From this point forward, there is no way that humans can live without urbanism, there is no ‘going back to the land,’” she said. “We can take a sort of comfort in the fact that the challenges we face like infrastructure, transportation, water sourcing, pollution and trash have essentially been a part of city life from the very beginning.”

Smith said one of the goals of her writing is to inspire people to think of cities as dynamic and adaptable.

“We can work to make cities not only more efficient, but more equitable, in the sense of social justice and greater opportunities for larger numbers of people, along with greater diversity,” she said. “Cities are not just inherited configurations, but are places with potential for growing into the better societies that we wish for ourselves and others.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Andrea Ghez, Lauren B. Leichtman & Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics at UCLA, receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford University on June 26, 2019. Ghez is with her sons.

UCLA astronomer receives honorary degree from Oxford

By Lisa Garibay

Andrea Ghez, Lauren B. Leichtman & Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics at UCLA, receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford University on June 26, 2019. Ghez is with her sons.

UCLA’s Andrea Ghez with her sons at Oxford University.

Andrea Ghez, distinguished professor of physics and astronomy and director of UCLA’s Galactic Center Group, was awarded an honorary degree today from Oxford University during its annual Encaenia ceremony.

Ghez demonstrated the existence of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, with a mass 4 million times that of our sun. Her work provided the best evidence yet that these exotic objects really do exist, providing an opportunity to study the fundamental laws of physics in the extreme environment near a black hole, and learn what role this black hole has played in the formation and evolution of our galaxy.

She joins an eclectic group including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, and UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna, who developed the CRISPR-Cas9 technology for gene editing.

Ghez, who is the Lauren B. Leichtman & Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics, earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT in 1987 and her doctorate from Caltech in 1992, and has been on the faculty at UCLA since 1994.

This article was originally published on the UCLA Newsroom.

Karida Brown and Robert Dallek

Two professors will be part of the Obama Presidency Oral History Project

Karida Brown and Robert Dallek

Karida Brown and Robert Dallek

Karida Brown, assistant professor of sociology, and Robert Dallek, professor emeritus of history, have been named to the advisory board of the Obama Presidency Oral History Project.

The Obama Foundation teamed with the Columbia Center for Oral History Research to produce the official oral history of Barack Obama’s presidency. The project will provide a comprehensive, enduring record of the decisions, actions and effects of his time in office.

Brown and Dallek join an advisory board made up of a distinguished list of presidential historians and authors; acclaimed journalists such as NPR’s Michele Norris and The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb; and other scholars in history, political science, sociology and public health from Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, UC Berkeley and UC Irvine. They will be responsible for shaping the project and uncovering narratives of how the Obama administration affected the lives of those inside and outside of Washington, D.C.

Starting this summer and during the next five years, the Obama Presidency Oral History Project will conduct interviews with some 400 people, including senior leaders and policy makers within the administration, as well as elected officials, campaign staff, journalists, and other key figures — Republican and Democrat — outside the White House.

The project also will incorporate interviews with individuals representing different dimensions of daily American life, whose perspectives enable the archive to weave recollections of administration officials with the stories and experiences of people who were affected by the administration’s decisions. This project will also examine Michelle Obama’s work and legacy as first lady.

This project builds on a longstanding tradition of presidential oral histories. For more than 50 years, oral history has been used to record the stories of people inside and outside the White House that shed light on a president’s time in office. This will be the second presidential oral history project conducted by Columbia, home to the country’s largest and oldest oral history archive, including the Eisenhower Administration Oral History project. Dwight Eisenhower was president of Columbia from 1948 to 1952. As part of this effort, Columbia and its academic partners will have full control on all editorial aspects of the project.

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of Sharon E. J. Gerstel

UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture Announces Appointment of Sharon E. J. Gerstel as Director

Photo of Sharon E. J. Gerstel

Sharon E. J. Gerstel

 

The UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture today announced the appointment of Sharon E. J. Gerstel as its inaugural director, effective July 1, 2019. Gerstel has served as the acting director of the Center since 2017.

In her role as director, Gerstel will develop a long-term vision for the Center, building on the university’s research and teaching strengths in Hellenic studies, including the expansion of courses in Modern Greek language and culture. Under her guidance, the Center will continue to forge strong partnerships with Hellenic organizations in Southern California.

“As someone who has worked in Greece for more than 30 years and who so closely identifies with Greek culture, I am honored and excited to take on this role,” said Gerstel. “The establishment of the Center demonstrates UCLA’s deep investment in the study and teaching of Hellenic culture, but also manifests its commitment to engage members of the community in the consideration of the rich history and culture of Greece, Cyprus, and the Hellenic diaspora. I am looking forward to strengthening our connections with cultural and educational institutions in Greece and Cyprus.”

In 2019, Gerstel was honored by the American Hellenic Council and the Hellenic Society of Constantinople for her work as acting director of the Center. She currently serves on the Board of the Greek Heritage Society of Southern California.

Said David Schaberg, UCLA’s Dean of Humanities, “With Professor Gerstel’s strong leadership, I have no doubt the Center will continue to forge strong connections with cultural institutions and universities near and far to highlight the significant legacy of Hellenic culture in our world today.”

In addition to its teaching and research mission, the Center, which was initiated in October 2017 by the commitment of a $5 million grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, already has become a vibrant cultural hub for the Los Angeles Hellenic community. Approximately 150,000 Americans of Greek and Cypriot ancestry live in California — more than in any other state except New York — with about half of them in Southern California, according to a 2006 U.S. Census Bureau survey.

“Professor Gerstel is a pillar for both the Greek community and Greece in Los Angeles. She is a genuine Philhellene and the most worthy person to take up the inaugural directorship of this new and important research and cultural center,” said Evgenia Beniatoglou, Consul General of Greece in Los Angeles.

Gerstel, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU), and a former student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, has been a Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology in the Department of Art History at UCLA since 2005. Prior to her tenure at UCLA, she taught at the University of Maryland and served as a research associate at the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies. As a specialist in the art and archaeology of medieval Greece, Gerstel has written or edited seven books and has authored dozens of articles in the fields of art history, archaeology, history and religious studies. Her most recent book, Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography, which was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Mellon Foundation Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, received the 2016 Runciman Award from the Anglo-Hellenic League, the Inaugural Book Prize from the International Center for Medieval Art (ICMA), and the Maria Theocharis Prize from the Christian Archaeological Society in Greece.

Her current research focuses on the church of Hagioi Theodoroi in Vamvaka, Mani, and its community. She also is co-director of “Soundscapes of Byzantium,” a collaborative, transdisciplinary project that studies Byzantine chant, architecture and painting together with modern-day analyses of acoustics and psychoacoustics. The project, funded by both UCLA and USC, focuses primarily on the churches of Thessaloniki.The original $5 million grant establishing the Center was part of the UCLA Centennial Campaign, which is scheduled to conclude in December 2019 during UCLA’s 100th anniversary year. As part of the founding agreement, UCLA is raising an additional $3 million in eternal funding in support of the Center. For more information about The UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture, visit: https://hellenic.ucla.edu/

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati

The stone faces and human problems on Easter Island

Excavation of Moai 156 (left) and 157. The visible difference in color and texture, and thus in preservation, is due to soil and depth coverage.

Excavation of Moai 156 (left) and 157. The visible difference in color and texture, and thus in preservation, is due to soil and depth coverage.

Archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg continues to seek insight from the statues and for the living descendants of their makers

In 1981, UCLA archaeology graduate student Jo Anne Van Tilburg first set foot on the island of Rapa Nui, which is commonly called Easter Island, eager to explore her interest in rock art by studying the iconic stone heads that enigmatically survey the landscape.

Van Tilburg was one of just a few thousand people who would visit Rapa Nui each year back then. And though the island to this day remains one the most remote inhabited islands in the world, a surge in annual visitors has placed its delicate ecosystem and archaeological treasures in jeopardy.

“When I went to Easter Island for the first time in ’81, the number of people who visited per year was about 2,500,” said Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, the longest collaborative artifact inventory ever conducted on the Polynesian island that belongs to Chile. “As of last year the number of tourists who arrived was 150,000 from around the world.”

On April 21, which is Easter Sunday, CBS’ “60 Minutes” will air a special interview with Van Tilburg and Anderson Cooper filmed on the island, talking about efforts to preserve the moai (pronounced MO-eye) — the monolithic stone statues that were carved and placed on the island from around 1100 to 1400 and whose stoic faces have fascinated the world for decades.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati

Back in 2003, Van Tilburg, who is research associate at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and director of UCLA’s Rock Art Archive since 1997, was the first archaeologist since the 1950s to obtain permission from Chile’s National Council of Monuments and the Rapa Nui National Park, with the Rapa Nui community and in collaboration with the National Center of Conservation and Restoration, Santiago de Chile, to excavate the moai, which most people didn’t know included torsos, which are buried below the surface, prior to her work and the publicity surrounding it.

Her success in obtaining permission to dig on the island, she credits to a philosophy of “community archaeology.” She has spent nearly four decades among the people of Rapa Nui, listening, learning, making connections, making covenants with the elders of the society, reporting extensively on her findings. Major funding has been provided by the Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Fund.

“I think my patience and diligence was rewarded,” she said. “They saw me all those years getting really dirty doing the work. What they don’t like is when people come and think they have all the answers and then leave. That feels to the Rapanui like their history is being co-opted.”

Van Tilburg credits the sustained and generous support of UCLA’s Cotsen Institute as critical to her continued work on the island. She has also made it a point to include UCLA undergraduates from a variety of academic disciplines in the hands-on work on Rapa Nui, including Alice Hom who began as a work study student 20 years ago and who now serves as project manager for the Easter Island Statue Project.

Van Tilburg, who received her doctorate in archaeology from UCLA in 1989, is working on a massive book project harnessing her vast archive that will serve as an academic atlas of the island, its history and the meaning behind the moai. She used the proceeds of a previous book to invest in a local business, the Mana Gallery and Mana Gallery press, both of which highlight indigenous artists. And she helped the local community rediscover their canoe-making history through the 1995 creation of the Rapa Nui Outrigger Club.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg being interviewed by Anderson Cooper of “60 Minutes”

Jo Anne Van Tilburg being interviewed by Anderson Cooper of “60 Minutes”

Her co-director on the Easter Island Statue Project, Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, is Rapanui and a graphic artist by trade. Van Tilburg exclusively employs islanders for her excavation work. She’s traveled the world helping catalog items from the island that are now housed in museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the British Museum in London. Van Tilburg does this to assist repatriation efforts.

Rapa Nui is more commonly known as Easter Island because Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen first landed there on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722. But the people who already lived there (Polynesian descendants of a massive human migration more than 500 years earlier), simply called the place “home,” Van Tilburg said.

“Very few pacific islands originally had names,” Van Tilburg said. “What was named was a landmark or a star or something that brought you to it, but not necessarily the island itself.”

The “60 Minutes” interview also focuses on how current residents of the island are coping with increasing waves of tourism, which is almost always a double-edged sword, but is especially so in a fragile ecosystem, Van Tilburg said.

The now 150,000 annual visitors pale in comparison to the vast numbers of travelers who flock to Egypt’s pyramids and awe-inspiring archaeological sites, she noted.

The intricate rock art on the back of Moai 157.

The intricate rock art on the back of Moai 157.

“But by Rapa Nui standards, on an island where electricity is provided by a generator, water is precious and depleted, and all the infrastructure is stressed, 150,000 is a mob,” she said.

What’s more disheartening is the frequent disrespectful nature of some travelers who ignore the rules and climb on the moai, trample preserved spaces and sit on top of graves all in service of getting a photo of themselves picking the nose of an ancient artifact, Van Tilburg said.

The masses and the increasingly harmful glibness of the travelers are something the 5,700 residents of the island must grapple with. Only in the last decade or so have they been given governance of the national park where the moai are located. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with much of the island protected within Rapa Nui National Park.

Van Tilburg’s original impetus behind studying the moai is rooted in her curiosity about migration, marginalized people and how societies rise and fall.

“Rapa Nui was the last island settled probably in the whole westward movement that took place from southeast Asia across the Pacific,” Van Tilburg said. “I’m interested in what that might signal to us about today and why people are moving around the world the way they are.”

Rapanui society was traditionally hierarchical, led by a class of people who believed themselves God-appointed elites. These leaders dictated where the lower classes could live, how they would work to provide food for the elites and the population at large. The ruling class also determined how and when the moai would be built as the backdrop for exchange and ceremony.

“This inherently institutionalized religious hierarchy produced an inequitable society,” Van Tilburg said. “They were very successful in the sense that their population grew and they were good horticulturists, agriculturists and fisherman. But they were unsuccessful at understanding that unless they managed what they had better, and more fairly, that there was no future.”

Population growth and rampant inequity in a fragile environment eventually led to wrenching societal changes, she said. Internal collapse (as outlined in UCLA professor Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”) along with colonization and slave-trading in the 1800s caused the population of Rapa Nui to drop to just 111 in the 1870s.

As an anthropologist, Van Tilburg is deeply interested in equity.

“I’m interested in asking why do we keep replicating societies in which people are not equal, because in doing so, we initiate a crisis,” she said. “Inequity is at the heart of our human problems.”

This story originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of Brenda Elaine Stevenson

Brenda Elaine Stevenson receives inaugural 2019 Germany residency at the University of Augsburg

Photo of Brenda Elaine Stevenson

Brenda Elaine Stevenson

During its annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) announced that Brenda Elaine Stevenson, University of California, Los Angeles, has been selected to receive the inaugural 2019 residency at the University of Augsburg.

 

2019 Germany Residency Program
Thanks to a generous grant from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the OAH is pleased to continue the Germany Residency Program in American history at the University of Tübingen. Funding from the University of Augsburg will also enable an extension of the program to the University of Augsburg in 2019. The resident scholar at each university will offer a seminar on a U.S. history topic of his or her design.

The residency was announced on April 5 by OAH’s 2019–20 President Joanne Meyerowitz.

 

About the Organization of American Historians
Founded in 1907, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) is the world’s largest professional association dedicated to American history scholarship. With more than 7,500 members from the U.S. and abroad, OAH promotes excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history, encouraging wide discussion of historical questions and equitable treatment of history practitioners. It publishes the quarterly Journal of American History, the leading scholarly publication and journal of record in the field of American history for more than a century. It also publishes The American Historian magazine. Formerly known as the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA), the association became the OAH in 1965 to reflect a broader scope focusing on national studies of American history. The OAH national headquarters are located in the historic Raintree House on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus.