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Volume 41. No. 2.
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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 surroundings.

“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
Healthy Skepticism

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 Institute.

Religious Studies / Professor Zayn Kassam
Explaining Islam

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 National Teacher of the Year Award in November 2005.
—Cynthia Peters
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