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Lives of the Mind
Astronomy/ Professor Bryan Penprase
Archeology of the Universe
Bryan Penprase, associate professor of physics and astronomy, searches
the night skies for glimpses of primeval galaxies, which are visible
only when illuminated by the intensely bright, extremely brief flashes
of light known as gamma-ray bursts (GRBs).
Unknown until the 1960s, GRBs are the result of stars blowing up in
primeval galaxies. When one explodes, the burst of light takes an
instantaneous snapshot in the same way a flashbulb does of its
“Studying GRBs is really the study of the archeology of the universe by
looking at the fossil light that’s traveled billions of years through
space,” explains Penprase. “By studying a few photons that come from
that early time, we can exactly watch how things were back then.”
By analyzing the GRBs spectra absorption lines, Penprase and a CalTech/Carnegie
Observatories research team can also figure out the galaxy’s different
elements and abundances, temperatures and densities to find out what the
galaxies are like.
Penprase’s work has already resulted in a groundbreaking paper. He is a
co-author of “The Afterglow of GRB050709 and the Nature of the
Short-Hard Gamma-Ray Bursts,” published in the Oct. 6, 2005 edition of
Nature, which announced the solution to the mystery of the origins of
the short-hard gamma-ray bursts.
Economics/ Professor Gary Smith
Can famous people really delay death until after their birthday? Do
Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans have abnormally high cardiac
mortality on the fourth day of the month?
These claims were made in peer-reviewed professional journals and later
debunked by Gary Smith, professor of economics.
The study that inspired Smith’s skepticism found that famous people
really could postpone their deaths. When his students looked at data
from others countries and couldn’t replicate the results, Smith and
Heather Royer ’96 went to the original data and found that the
researchers had looked at birth months, not birthdays. Using the same
subjects and birthdays, they found no delay of death. Their article
appeared in the journal Social Biology in 1998.
Since then, Smith has worked with students on a number of articles
debunking published studies. He and Stillian Morrison ’05 investigated a
claim that people with negative initials—such as PIG—died an average of
seven years earlier than people with positive initials, such as ACE.
Examining California death records from 1905 to 2005, they found no
statistically significant relationship between initials and longevity
when the decedents were grouped by birth year. Their article was
published in Psychosomatic Medicine (September/October 2005).
Smith’s main body of research involves financial markets and the
application of statistical analysis to finance and sports. Working with
Margaret Hwang Smith, assistant professor of economics, he is analyzing
data from 10 cities across the nation to determine if there is a housing
bubble. They will present their findings in March at the Brookings
Religious Studies / Professor Zayn Kassam
Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Zayn Kassam, associate
professor of religion and a practicing Muslim, felt compelled to address
the public’s sudden demand for information about Islam, the world’s
second largest religion with 1.2 billion believers.
To that end, she completed a book on Islam for the six- volume
Introduction to the World’s Major Religions. The series is meant for
high school libraries and works well for a lay audience.
Upcoming projects include a “Biographical Dictionary of Notable Muslims”
and a book on feminist theology that addresses hot button issues in
Islamic culture and what the Koran does say about the status of women
and their equal share in humanity. It is the relationship between
religious ideology and its concrete expression that most interests
Kassam. “Oftentimes religious sentiments become mobilizing forces for
positive social change as with the civil rights movement,” explains
Kassam. “Yet sometimes they are mobilized politically for resistance—for
instance against colonial regimes—and sometimes they are mobilized for
repression—as during the Inquisition. Examining the production of
religious ideas in conjunction with the issues of the day fascinates me,
as do the myriad ways in which humans think about their relationship to
what they consider sacred.”
Kassam was honored with the American Academy of Religion 2005
Teacher of the Year Award in November 2005.