My guest today, David Helfand, is the professor you dreamed about having in college, but never actually found. Someone who was impossibly knowledgeable, exquisitely articulate and whose greatest passion in life is teaching.
HELFAND: I keep insisting — although it’s getting harder and harder, maybe just because I’m getting tired — that being a first-rate researcher and being an excellent teacher and mentor are not fundamentally incompatible.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
David Helfand has been a faculty member at Columbia University for 41 years, chair of the astronomy department for nearly half that time, and served as the president of the American Astronomical Society. He’s got over 200 scientific publications, written a popular book entitled A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age, and won a bundle of teaching awards.
LEVITT: David, you’ve taught at Columbia University for many years. Let me ask you about tenure. How do you feel about academic tenure as an institution?
HELFAND: Well, when I was in graduate school, I decided tenure was a bad idea.
LEVITT: For you personally, or as an institution?
HELFAND: No — in graduate school, I watched the tenured faculty — and this was back in the early ‘70s, so, norms were a little looser than they are now, and the behavior was pretty appalling — and the non-tenured faculty walking on eggshells and working 20-hours-a-day to become tenured faculty. And it didn’t seem to correlate with anything that really should be valued. So, I decided I was not going to participate in this system. And so, I got to Columbia and I became a faculty member and five years went by and I was informed I was being put up for tenure and I said, “Well, thank you very much, but I’m not going to do this.” And they all patted me on the head and laughed and went ahead and put me up for tenure. And so, I was offered tenure and I wrote back to the provost and I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t intend to participate in this system, so, I would like to have a five-year contract that has benchmarks and I will write a reflection on what I intend to do for the next five years and you will then compare that with what I’ve done five years, hence, and decide whether to renew my contract or not.” This did not go over well.
LEVITT: In what sense? So, what happened?
HELFAND: It took two years, but one of the famous conversations with the provost was, “But David, you have to understand tenure is not something incumbent on you. It’s something incumbent on the university.” He was a very well-known historian. He said, “You know, you can’t give up your rights under the Bill of Rights.” And I said, “No, but I can renounce my citizenship.” And so that didn’t get anywhere until the provost changed, and we got a provost who had been the associate director of the National Institutes of Health and had spent 40 years dealing with tenured civil servants. And found incredibly refreshing the idea that someone didn’t want tenure. And so, actually gave me a five-year contract. And I’ve had seven of those since.
LEVITT: Really? So, you are not tenured?
HELFAND: No, I write a five-year plan and there’s a committee that reviews it as though we’re reviewing a tenure case and we go on. Now I have two principal objections. One is tenure does more to deny academic freedom to those who don’t have it than it does to protect the academic freedom of those who do. When you look at the national scene now, it’s close to 70 percent of undergraduate courses are taught by people not in the tenure stream. It’s just becoming a small elite that’s divorced from the purpose of universities that gets tenure.
LEVITT: Talk about academic freedom. I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean by that.
HELFAND: Well, I should make a caveat here and that is: public institutions and private institutions, I think, are slightly different cases, but I have never felt the slightest bit impinged on not having tenure and withholding either critical comments of the administration or comments about politics or comments about research or the research that I do or the teaching that I choose to do. I’ve never felt the least bit constrained despite the fact I don’t have tenure and that’s because it’s the culture of institutions to protect academic freedom. But my second reason is even more controversial, I suppose. And that is most university professors are pretty smart and most smart people are not university professors. So, that implies there’s some filter that selects some small fraction of smart people to make them university professors. And I would argue — and this is from 45 years of experience with talking to colleagues — that a significant part of that filter is people who want a job for life without review. And that seems to me exactly the opposite of the fraction of smart people you want to give the societally blessed opportunity to advance the frontiers of knowledge and to communicate what we know to the next generation. It seems to me you want the most risk-taking, not the most risk-averse people in that kind of situation.
LEVITT: I’ve heard a story told about you that sometimes when the weather is nice, you skip your prepared astrophysics lecture and instead you lead your undergraduates on a walk through Central Park. What do you talk to the students about on that walk?
HELFAND: Well, it’s usually Riverside Park, and what I try to get across is the enormous enrichment one obtains in a walk in the park, if one can view it as a scientist does. For example, the paving stones in the walk along Riverside Drive are hexagonal. And I said, “Why do you suppose they’re hexagonal?” And it’s because it’s one of the three figures that you can make a close packed array of — a square, a triangle, and hexagonal. It’s all about seeing what the sunlight is doing as it comes through the atmosphere, what a bee sees when it looks at a flower, and a history of past climate in the rings of trees. The trees are breathing in the air, and as a consequence, they are directly recording the composition of the air in the year that that ring grows. And so, one can go back in time and measure the temperature and the humidity of each year for thousands of years, because we have trees that are that old, by simply measuring the isotopic ratios of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen and things like that.
LEVITT: How do you get its temperature and humidity?
HELFAND: The tree is what it eats. Whatever it sucks out of the air is what ends up in its material — its cellulose or whatever.
HELFAND: So, the tree breathes in carbon dioxide, and it splits the carbon and oxygen with sunlight. That’s what photosynthesis is, it breathes out the oxygen, and incorporates the carbon into the cellulose of the tree. Now carbon comes in three different varieties: carbon 12, carbon 13, and carbon 14, and they are chemically identical, but the difference is their mass — they weigh different amounts. So, it turns out the tree discriminates against carbon 13 and carbon 14 because they’re fat and slow — something I’ve come to understand later in life. So, the tree has a ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12, which is biased in favor of carbon 12. However, when it’s a very dry year, the little stemmata — the little breathing holes on the bottom of the leaves of the tree — actually close down to avoid the tree losing any water out that little breathing hole. And so they get less picky about the carbon 13s. And so, the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 gives you a measure of the humidity.
HELFAND: Likewise, the water — the H2O — that the tree sucks up — oxygen comes in different varieties as well. The common find is oxygen 16, but the heavier kind is oxygen 18, and the H2O-18 is harder to evaporate because it’s heavier, so it’s harder to lift out of the ocean, so therefore it falls less as rain. But when the temperature is warmer, the molecules are moving faster, so it’s easier to get it out of the ocean. And so the oxygen 18 to oxygen 16 ratio gives you a measure of the temperature, and it’s stunningly accurate. It’s accurate to a 10th of a degree centigrade.
LEVITT: Wow. I would love to walk through the park with you. How do your students respond? Because, as a professor, I just have the hardest time getting college students to engage in any way, shape, or form.
HELFAND: It’s a challenge. First of all, you have to get them off their screens. I can’t claim I get all of them to engage, but when given the choice between a lecture on stellar nucleosynthesis and the walk on a beautiful, warm spring in Riverside Park, it’s a little easier. Because what it does is it reawakens the five-year-old in them. The problem with most college students is they’ve had 12 years of standard education, which has beaten the curiosity out of them, and so it takes a while to re-energize that curiosity.
LEVITT: It used to be at Columbia University that there was no requirement for undergraduates to take any science classes, and you didn’t like that, and spearheaded a change that made science mandatory. Is that right?
HELFAND: Well, it’s not quite right. There was a requirement to take a smorgasbord selection of a couple of science courses or math courses. Columbia is unique amongst the top universities in the country in having a true core curriculum. But this core curriculum, which had existed since 1919, was seven humanities courses, zero science courses and zero math courses and zero social science courses, which didn’t strike me quite as the advertised intellectual coat of arms that the catalog claimed it was.
LEVITT: Was it an easy change to make administratively or did it take a couple of years of fighting to make this happen?
HELFAND: Oh, a couple years — Steve, you’re at a university, aren’t you? So, in 1982, I got myself named chair of a Committee on the Place of Science in the Liberal Arts, and in 2004 — 22 years later —we succeeded in adding a course to the core curriculum.
LEVITT: Wow. What made you be willing to spend part of 22 years of your life working for this goal?
HELFAND: The graduates of Columbia, like the graduates of Chicago, go on to positions of influence in society. And it struck me as grossly irresponsible to graduate such students who had not been equipped with basic quantitative-reasoning skills, what I call in the class, “scientific habits of mind.” So, this course is called “Frontiers of Science” and we pick four topics each year to illustrate how science works and the technical skills that one needs — probabilities, statistics, reading graphs, doing back of the envelope calculations, making estimations. And we do this with exciting topics like gravitational waves, and the neuroscience of decision-making, and the biophysical chemistry of viruses and vaccines, and global warming. And by the end of the course, the students have a set of tools that they can apply in their financial lives, in their medical lives, in their public lives, in their political decisions.
LEVITT: Walk me through what a month of this course would look like. What’s an example of how you use back of the envelope calculations in the context of one of these topics?
HELFAND: So, let me do global warming because that’s the last one that I lectured in.
HELFAND: This is not a political science course or an economics course or a psychology course, or an engineering course, so we stick to the science of global warming.
LEVITT: Okay. So, not an ethics course, either.
HELFAND: Nor an ethics course. So, how do we know what we know? And my approach is I label every slide as a fact, and to avoid epistemological argument, I define a fact as: a measurement of the material world done with the best available tools with an assigned uncertainty vetted by skeptical review and preferably independently reproduced. That’s a fact. Then there are models. There’s physics. So, physics is a model of the world. It’s not the world itself, but it’s a model of the world — a very successful model — but it has inherent uncertainties. Then we have technical things like feedback loops, which you have in economics. And I talk about positive and negative feedback loops and how that makes predicting the future of climate so difficult. But in the course of the three weeks, they’ll learn about the astronomical factors, the variability of the sun, the Milankovitch cycles of the Earth’s tilt and orbit change over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. They’ll learn about paleoclimate, how we’ve measured the past using ice cores and tree rings going back hundreds of thousands of years so we have something to test our models against. They learn about the current measurements, how we know the temperature, how we do the measurements of the composition of the atmosphere, and how we can fingerprint the fact that the CO2 we’re adding to the atmosphere does come from fossil fuels.
Then we go onto the models: How do the models work? What are the uncertainties in the models? What are the feedback loops that make the models complicated? And then there’s activities in the seminars, which range from taking the I.P.C.C. report — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports — and giving a presentation to the rest of the class on it — debating a specific question, doing calculations of feedback loops, understanding the radiation-balance diagram of the atmosphere. So, there’s lots of estimation involved. One question you always get is, “But if we just plant trees, won’t that be good?” And so, they have to calculate how much carbon a tree is likely to sequester compared to how much carbon a gallon of gas they burn in their car is likely to produce. It turns out it was about one tree per half a tankful. At the end of this enterprise, they’ve done some reading. They’ve gotten their hands dirty doing calculations, understanding feedback loops, certainly lots and lots of graphs they have to read and interpret accurately. And we weave those topics through each of the four things, so it gets self-reinforced by the time we get to the end of the semester.
LEVITT: So, you talked about the variability of the sun. Is that an important factor in variation in the Earth’s temperature over time?
HELFAND: Well, it’s an interesting question. There’s variability on different scales. So, the sun — because it’s turning its core of hydrogen into helium systematically — has over its 4.568 billion year history gotten brighter by about 30 percent. Now that’s interesting on an astronomical timescale, but it’s completely irrelevant to the issue of global warming. The variability the sun has on an interesting timescale is the sunspot cycle, which is an 11-year cycle of becoming more and less active. So, we’ve measured that — over the last 40 years since we’ve had satellites up to do it — it’s about a 10th of a percent — or one part in a thousand — that the total output of the sun varies from the peak of the sunspot cycle until five-and-a-half-years later — the minimum of the sunspot cycle. And that effect is pretty small, although you can actually see it in the last 60 years of data. You can see that the peak-sunspot years are slightly warmer than the minimum sunspot years compared to the overall global warming. However, if you look back historically from 1610 when Galileo discovered sunspots up to the present, there was a period in the 1600s, in which there were very few sunspots, at least very few sunspots reported. Now historians argue about whether it was because no one was looking or because there weren’t any sunspots. But that period happens to correspond to an unusually cold period called the Little Ice Age in Europe and North America. And that’s interesting because lower-sunspot numbers mean less solar luminosity — less output of energy from the sun. And we know that going back in time, again, using tree rings and ice cores and things like that, that those kinds of fluctuations on millennial timescales or hundreds-of-years timescale are not uncommon. We also know that from looking at other stars, which behave very similarly to the sun. So, the 11-year cycle is only a 10th of a percent and probably not a significant factor but on the longer-timescale fluctuations of centuries to millennia, it may be significant. The one thing I drive home in this class is that the last 11 years has been the lowest integrated sunspot number that we’ve had for over a century. So, it’s certainly not the case that that extra flux from the sun is warming the Earth, because it’s the opposite.
LEVITT: It’s the opposite. Interesting.
HELFAND: The sun has been quietest in the last 11 years.
LEVITT: So, let me offer you a compliment because you managed to make science really interesting, to me, at least, over the last few minutes and you made me wonder about the sunspot cycle, which I’ve literally never thought about before. That to me is the hallmark of successful teaching. One of my passion projects has been trying to introduce data science skills into the educational system. And what I think you just did beautifully was to show how, if you can take a scientific viewpoint and embed it into a question that’s intrinsically interesting, everything changes. I don’t think we do enough of that.
HELFAND: No, we don’t. So, incorporating data science and even a little programming is our next goal in this class, when we do it, we’re going to embed it as much as possible rather than teaching it as a data science course or a computer science course would be taught.
LEVITT: As you describe science, I think different people have different views of what science is. What does it mean to think scientifically? What did you call it? The habits of the scientific mind?
HELFAND: Scientific habits of mind.
LEVITT: Habits of mind. Yeah. What are those in your view?
HELFAND: Science is a social process by which we attempt to build falsifiable models of the material world. So, how do you do that? Well, you start by observing the material world, collecting data that are interesting and relevant to building a predictive model that’s falsifiable. Science makes progress through disproving its models. So, science is not, in my view, a search for truth — mathematicians and philosophers search for truth — but science is a process of building models, testing them against nature and typically having them fail, which provides deeper insight and another iteration of the process. Given that definition, I think it conforms rather closely to what five-year-olds do. They explore the world. It’s all new to them. And they do experiments. You know, they shove the fork in the electric outlet, right? And they come up with results, which make them not shove the fork in the electric outlet anymore. But the point is that they are exploring the world naively — and I think that’s important — but they’re recording the results of that exploration and building models that make the world a little bit more predictable.
LEVITT: So, one of the things that I emphasize a lot, which you haven’t mentioned is, in economics, understanding the difference between correlation and causality is perhaps, to me, one of the most central ideas. Is that something that you also emphasize in this class?
HELFAND: Yeah, absolutely. So, we have a whole set of articulated learning objectives and that’s one that appears in every single unit. It appears in the determination of what’s producing the CO2 in the atmosphere. I say the amount of O2 that’s disappearing from the atmosphere — most people don’t know this, but the oxygen in the atmosphere is declining. The amount — the mass of oxygen that declines every year is just about the same as the amount of oxygen that shows up in the CO2 that’s being added to the atmosphere each year, but that’s just a correlation. And we have to go through this elaborate process of looking at the isotopes of carbon to make a definitive conclusion that 80-some percent of this comes from burning fossil fuels. So, that’s a key distinction in science as well as in economics.
LEVITT: You’ve been an exceptionally successful researcher, almost 200 published academic papers. You’ve been the chair of the astronomy department at Columbia for many years, the president of the American Astronomical Society. It’s extremely rare for an eminent scholar like yourself to care so much about teaching. Because, frankly, there’s no incentive in the current system to do so. Don’t you agree that our system is set up so that people like you don’t emphasize teaching?
HELFAND: You’re certainly right about the incentives in the system. I have, I guess, rebelled against this for four and a half decades at Columbia. I keep insisting — although it’s getting harder and harder, I must say, maybe just because I’m getting tired — that being a first-rate researcher and being an excellent teacher and mentor are not fundamentally incompatible. And if that’s true for an individual, then it should be true for an institution. It doesn’t mean that everybody needs to do exactly the same thing, but it means that a department or a school needs to provide both an excellent education and excellent research at the forefront of knowledge. I must say the incentives are not stacked in favor of that. That’s true. And it troubles me deeply.
LEVITT: Personally, I realized early on in my own career that it was just more fun to teach well than to teach badly. It feels awful to me to stand in front of a hundred students unprepared. It feels awful to teach them useless stuff. So, I just try to teach good courses but it’s only for selfish reasons. There’s nothing external that drives me to do that. It doesn’t earn me a higher salary or respect of my peers. And mostly it just creates work. Good classes mean higher enrollment, which means more time invested in grading and office hours and writing recommendation letters. People outside of academics live under the illusion that teaching is viewed as a really important part of what research scientists do.
HELFAND: Oh, absolutely. I meet someone at a cocktail party and they say, “What do you do?” I say, “Well, I work at Columbia.” They say, “What do you teach?” They don’t say, “What’s your research field?”
LEVITT: It’s funny. Talking about these academic incentives — it reminded me of something I haven’t thought about in a long time. When I first got to the U. of C., I was struck by how mathematically demanding the requirements were in economics major, and then, to my shock and dismay a couple years after I got there, there was a proposal on the table to even up these mathematical requirements further. And I actually went around and I informally surveyed my colleagues and I asked them how much math they had taken. And roughly half of my colleagues would have taken less math than we were requiring of our undergraduates. So, at the faculty meeting where we were going to vote on adding these extra math classes, I asked why people thought this would be a good idea. And the answer I was given was, “Well, the economics major is too popular at the University of Chicago and it’s too much work for the department administrators and our faculty is too small to cover the classes.” So, the idea was we have to add more essentially useless, but very painful math classes, and that will reduce the attractiveness of the major. Somewhat incredulous, I reminded my colleagues that we were indeed the University of Chicago economics department, and we believed in markets and why not, for instance, deliver an amazing major and charge higher tuitions to the students who wanted to major in economics, and by picking the right price, we could equilibrate supply and demand. And there was a lot of silence in the room. So, I said, “Well, okay, forget about that. If that’s impossible. What about just using a lottery to allocate spots? It wouldn’t be efficient, but it’s still so much better than intentionally make the econ. major bad.” And so, immediately after I made this impassioned speech, we had a faculty vote and I was the only person in the room to vote against adding extra math classes as a requirement. And we indeed created this major that was just a monstrosity designed to drive people away. And that, to me, captures in some very fundamental way what’s one of the things that’s wrong with the modern academic institutions.
HELFAND: I had an experience of this when I gave a talk on the future of the liberal arts and I gave my usual excoriation of the way we currently run universities, and this faculty member stood up he said, “Well, that was a nice polemic, but you surely don’t believe all of that.” And I said, “No, no, that’s why I said it. I believe it.” And he said, “But I don’t understand.” And he went into this long story, “When I was in first grade, you know, I was the kid that sat in the front row with his hands folded listening to the teacher. And so, when I got to fifth grade, I learned how to take notes from what the teacher was doing. And so, by high school, I could take notes really well. And by college, I could go for 90 minutes and take notes continuously. And that’s a very important skill.” And I’m thinking, ‘Where, but your class, is that an important skill to do this?’ And he went on to graduate school, and now he’s a professor. And he actually said at the end of this story, “So it seems to me the system must be perfect because it produced me.” So, there’s zero recognition that 98.5 percent of your students are not going to become you. Not going to become academic scientists or economists or whatever. And yet we construct our majors through imagining that they’re going to reproduce ourselves, which makes no sense whatsoever.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with David Helfand. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about the alternative school David helped create in Canada.
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LEVEY: Hey, Levitt.
LEVITT: Hey, Morgan.
LEVEY: So, now is the point in the show when we answer a listener question. Today’s question is brought to us by our listener named Ryan, and he’s a tabletop role-playing game designer. Think the game Dungeons and Dragons. (SL^OK) So, Ryan says that in his industry, there’s a big debate around to what extent rules should be explained. Specifically, rules built on existing concepts. Ryan believes that not reiterating the rules helps players internalize them better. Meaning people get satisfaction from figuring things out on their own. However, others believe that reiterating directions helps reinforce rules. So, Ryan wrote to us because he noticed that at the end of our listener questions segment I started explaining that PIMA, which is our email address — email@example.com — is an acronym for our show. And I started saying this at the beginning of December, in our episode with Andrew Yang. And while some people might have figured this out on their own. I started saying it because we got a lot of emails from people wondering what PIMA was or who PIMA was. And second, I also thought it would help people remember the email address more. Basically, I thought that explaining the rules would help people remember them. So, Ryan wants to know if there’s any research into the degree to which rule should be explained. Does letting people figure things out on their own encourage learning more, or is it better to explain things?
LEVITT: So, to Ryan’s question, I actually don’t know any research on this subject, but I have my own opinions and, Morgan, you and I often disagree about this because you are a definite explainer. And if anyone ever writes us with any complaint, your immediate reaction is to try to fix it. We need to fix it. And my reaction is there were thousands and thousands of people who didn’t complain so do we really want to change it? Now to Ryan’s point, if Ryan is listening and paying attention, you just pulled a Morgan at the beginning of the session, because we never have explained before what this segment is where we handle the listener question. But this time, Morgan, I caught you. You said, “This is the part of the show where we’re now going to do a listener question,” and you snuck that in because you know, I’d never would have let you do that. If you would actually ask me about it. Is that true?
LEVEY: It is true. And you just said, “Morgan pulled a Morgan, but let me defend myself a little bit.” My background’s in journalism and often in journalism, we think about accessibility. And so I want to keep people in the story. I believe that by not explaining something and just jumping into the segment, it might take people a minute to be like, “Wait, what’s going on?” And that takes them away from the content that we’re delivering. So, if I can just explain things up front, then there’s no confusion, then they’re not taken out of the storyline. Especially in audio where if you stop listening for about five seconds, you might be lost. You might’ve missed something important that we’ve said.
LEVITT: So, that could be true. I can’t deny that. And I am not a journalist and I, as much as possible, try to make this podcast not journalism, despite the pressure from you to fact check everything I say, I like to just say whatever and not care whether it’s true or not. But I really think it’s an old person, young person division. So, it was funny. you know how this game Wordle’s gotten really popular. And so, among my friends, we were passing back and forth games that were like Wordle, but take offs of it, like, there’s one called Dordle, which is Wordle, but double. So, anyway, I sent this to a friend my age and he writes me back immediately says, “Where are the instructions?” And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I must be really old.’ because that’s what my parents do. My parents have no ability, absent instructions, to do anything. And, yet, my kids have no problem. They just understand that you start playing and you learn as you go. So, I’m 100 percent with Ryan. I think that it’s okay for people to be a little bit confused and it’s good for people to have to think sometimes, it’s good practice for the real world, which is ambiguous much of the time, but you’re the producer and you have the final word. Whatever Morgan wants, Morgan gets.
LEVEY: Oh, that is not true.
LEVITT: We will find out, Morgan, who really calls the shots in the next episode, because at the beginning of this segment, if I call the shots, you won’t explain what kind of segment it is. And if you call the shots, you will tell the listeners that this is a listener-question segment.
LEVEY: Maybe a better idea is to look at how many emails we’ve gotten since I started saying that PIMA is an acronym for our show. If the number of listener emails we’ve gotten has increased, it might be because more people remember the email address than before when they were confused as to what PIMA was.
LEVITT: Oh, I liked that empirical approach. Although of course you’ve got to be careful because many things have changed over time as well. So, it would be an imperfect experiment, but some date is always better than no data. And, I love that you Morgan, a non-economist, a non-empirical person, that — I’m going to take a little bit of credit, probably wrongly — that just by hanging out in the PIMA atmosphere, you’ve started adopting those kinds of behaviors. And that’s from my perspective awesome.
LEVEY: I love that you said that I’m a non-empirical person just because I’m not an economist.
LEVITT: No, that’s not why I said it, Morgan. I said it because you’re not an empirical person.
LEVEY: It’s true. I’m a product of the humanities. Anyway, Thank you, Ryan, for your question. If you have a question for us, we can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It is an acronym for our show. Steve and I read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours.
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I find David helping to be an extraordinary character, as likably odd as he is brilliant. But we haven’t even gotten to the most unusual thing he’s done academically. In 2005, he took leave from Columbia to join a radical new college starting up in Canada: Quest University. And before long, he was president of Quest, a position he held for seven years. I’m curious to hear about that experience. And also, I want to talk to him about how he got started in science. You’ve heard him talk — what do you think his college major was? Take a guess, and then take 10 more guesses. I suspect you still won’t get it right.
LEVITT: You and I have both complained a lot about academics in this discussion. But you’ve actually gone and done something, not just trying to get science added to the core curriculum at Columbia, but actually being part of a much more radical experiment at Quest University Canada. Can you describe what you’ve helped build there?
HELFAND: Yeah. So, the year that “Frontiers of Science,” got approved — it wasn’t great, actually, because we had stuff to learn about how to teach every student science — I got a call from David Strangway, who had been the president of the University of Toronto and president of University of British Columbia. And he said, “David, I’ve heard what you’re doing about integrating science into a liberal arts curriculum at Columbia. We’re starting a brand-new university from scratch, and I want you to come out and talk about it.” So, I agreed to go out for a day to Vancouver, and didn’t come back for 10 years. And the reason is that basically what was underway was a very small group of people were given a blank piece of paper and said, “Let’s design a university from scratch for the 21st century, rather than the 19th-century universities we all live in.” And that was just too tempting to be passed up. So, how did it look different than a normal university? Well, the first problem in my view in universities is departments. So, we have no departments. And we built that into the concrete by making a circular academic building and assigning the offices to faculty by lottery. So, a music professor would sit next to a math professor, would sit next to a poet, would sit next to an economist. And most academics like to learn new things, and so, it ended up with the innumerate music professor and the tone-deaf math professor teaching a course of the mathematics of music together. And modeling learning in the classroom because they were actually learning from each other as they were doing this course. The next thing, of course, is tenure. So, we did not have tenure. We had fixed-term contracts that were renewable and we had a peer-review system. It wasn’t an administrative-review system. And we renewed a lot of contracts, and we didn’t renew some contracts.
LEVITT: What share of contracts didn’t get renewed? I’m curious about that.
HELFAND: Well, in the first instance, there were four people up and two didn’t get renewed.
LEVITT: Wow. Okay.
HELFAND: Subsequent to that it became rarer. It’s hard to fire people and that I think was unfortunate. Before I got there, it was decided that we were going to do this block system — this one course at a time. So, you take four courses in a term, but you take them in sequence instead of in parallel. It’s transformationally successful in terms of student engagement and what you can get done in a month. So, if I was teaching an astronomy class, well, it’s dark at night, not in the daytime. So, you just have class at night instead of in the daytime and keep them up all night, because they have nothing — no English paper due the next day and no economics problem set to do. They’re just doing one thing at a time. The volcanology class — first day they come to class they don’t get a fat textbook with boldface words they have to memorize. They get a list of equipment they have to bring the next day for winter camping. They go up for two days to the volcano behind the campus and collect samples. They spend the next three days in the high-pressure, high-temperature lab analyzing the samples. And then on Sunday, they fly to Volcano National Park in Hawaii and work with the volcanologists there. And they don’t know all the boldface word definitions, but they know a lot about volcanology. And even a religion class — the Buddhist retreat was open Thursday evenings and the Jewish services were on Saturday mornings, and so they’d just have class when it was relevant to have class. And then we didn’t have departments so the first two years was a core curriculum where everyone took an equal amount of math, science, social science, humanities, arts, and language. And then in the next two years, they defined their own question. They would define a set of more advanced courses they’d need to get the background to answer the question. They had a mandatory two-month or more fieldwork out away from the university doing something in a government office in a N.G.O. in Africa, or a local lab, or something like that. And then they would, in their final year, do this final project. And on the last week of their last year, have to present it to the entire university. Most of them I would say were better than the master’s theses I’ve seen at Columbia. They were just extraordinary because they focused on them for two years, and they were questions that the students themselves were passionate about.
LEVITT: A lot of people listening to what you just said will be incredibly excited about that model — energized by it. But my question to you as a scientist is how do you know if it’s working? What evidence do you have that this is a better system than the one we have?
HELFAND: Yeah. That’s a very good question, and it’s a very hard question. The answer is, in 20 years, have your graduate come back, and if they’re a happy, successful, satisfied, engaged, and still curious person, then it will have been a success. And if they’re not, well, then we failed. I don’t know how to measure this other than going 20 years forward and looking for alumni and Quest is not quite 20 years old yet, so we don’t have alumni that old.
LEVITT: Another way of thinking about it is a market test, which is a very different test. How is Quest University Canada doing from a market perspective? Are you inundated with applications?
HELFAND: Well, there were a lot of problems after I left. There were a lot of structural problems with the institution. But we went from, having in the first class 73 students, and basically being a carbon-based life form was the requirement for getting in, to eight years later when we had a thousand applicants for 180 positions. And this is in an environment in Canada where the most you can pay to go to university is $6,000 a year, and we were charging $30,000 a year. Now, American parents thought this was great because $30,000 a year is a lot less than $80,000 a year, (SL^ laughs) which is what it costs to go to Columbia or Chicago, so it was viewed as cheap by the Americans, but hopelessly expensive by the Canadians.
LEVITT: So, you’re obviously a huge believer in the power of science. I think it will shock listeners to hear that you were, of all things, a theater major in college, right?
HELFAND: Yeah, that’s just a historical accident, but yes.
LEVITT: How did you get confused and think you were a theater type, not a scientist?
HELFAND: Well, I went to an extremely mediocre public high school. And the only interesting teacher in the whole school was the theater director. And so, that meant that’s what I spent my time doing because he was the most interesting person in the school. And being naive, going to college and thinking, “Well, what I should do is what I had most fun doing in school, which is theater.” So, I went to Amherst College, and I went right to the theater department and started taking theater courses. And I attribute sort of 75 percent of my success in life to my theater background, not to my partial differential equations courses in which I didn’t do that well, actually.
LEVITT: Why is that? What did you learn in theater that’s been so beneficial?
HELFAND: Well, I don’t know how many physicists you know, but they’re not noted for their charismatic presentations, for example. And if you can do charismatic presentations, you get to do them a lot, and that gets you known and that gets you collaborators and that gets you research grants and things build from there. But also, the analytical and rhetorical skills necessary to write a good paper on a play are the same rhetorical skills you need to write a good paper on neutron star atmospheres. And after about a year and a half I took an astronomy course. Now, I literally have no recollection why I took an astronomy course because I had never had the slightest interest in astronomy, but I took the course and I became fascinated by one thing, which was binary stars. So, it turns out our sun is typical with the exception that it doesn’t have a companion. It turns out most stars have a companion, sometimes two or three companion stars. And— now, you can’t see two stars because they’re much, much, much too close given our vast distances from them, but if they’re going around each other in the same plane that you’re looking at them in, when one goes in front of the other, it eclipses it, blocks the light from it. And then half an orbit later, the second one eclipses the first one. So, all you see is the light getting dimmer and then brighter, and then dimmer and then brighter. And from that simple brightness as a function of time, one can derive — with high precision — the masses of the two stars, the radii, the sizes, diameters, the atmospheric structure of the stars, their departure from spherical symmetry, the chemical composition, their ages, and their ultimate phase.
And I thought this was so fascinating. And I had to write a paper at the end of the class that was supposed to be, like, an eight-page paper. I wrote a 54-page paper because I got totally obsessed with this. And when I went to Amherst — Amherst and Smith and Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire form a little nexus of five colleges — the astronomy department decided they would be one department over the five colleges. So, after you took the introductory course at your home institution, you would go to wherever the next course was being taught. And so, I went to Smith to take this class and the teacher was phenomenal. She was the first woman to get a professorship in the physical sciences in Germany. And she would, once every year or two, teach a class at Smith on astronomy, where we had to actually do astronomy. We had to go freeze our butts off getting data at the telescope in the middle of winter — and this was before digital cameras, so we had to develop the film in the darkroom, and we had to make measurements using binocular microscopes and things like that. And the last day of class, she said, (begins speaking in thick accent) “So, I think it’s time we take you all where they actually do astronomy.” And she pulled eight plane tickets out of her purse and passed them out. And we spent January in Arizona. And we visited the observatories, and we went out at night and we went in the daytime and we met all these astronomers.
And the final day, we were driving out to the telescope with the director of the University of Arizona observatory, I was in the back seat. He said, “Is anybody here thinking of becoming a professional astronomer?” And at this point I said, “Well, yeah, I’m considering it.” And he said, “Okay. So, suppose you’re called to testify before Congress” — which is ironic because as president of the American Astronomical Society, I did, ultimately, have to testify before Congress. “Suppose you have to do this. How would you justify spending public money on all of this completely useless science?” Because, you know, we don’t have much practical spinoffs of measuring neutron-star radii. And it was during the Apollo programs. I said, “Well, there’s all these spinoffs, there’s microcomputers, and there’s tang, and all this stuff that we’re going to get out of the space program,” and he cut me off and he said, “No.” He said, “There may or may not be spinoffs, but that’s not why you justify it. You justify it for the same reason that you justify supporting symphony orchestras and opera companies and poets, because it distinguishes us as human.” And I thought, “Gee, that’s a nice way to choose a career. Something that distinguishes us as human.” And so that night in the backseat of that car, I became a professional astronomer.
LEVITT: We’ve talked a lot about the state of education in the United States, but from the perspective of a student who has no ability to change the system in which they’re going to be educated, what advice do you have about how to get the most out of our current system?
HELFAND: Well, I teach these first-year students and my seminar section of 20 students, I meet with them individually. And the first thing I say to each of them as they’re fresh coming in — September of their first year, I say, “It’s possible to get a spectacularly good education at Columbia, and most of you won’t.” And I go on to tell them to dig through the system and find someone — can be a professor, it could be a lecturer, could be a graduate student — who they connect with and who they can share an academic passion with. And just yesterday, I got an email from one of my former undergraduate students from 20 years ago, who’s now a professor of physics at another institution in New York. And she had this summer student who did research with her, and the summer student had just written her a letter. And it was about how she owed her entire future career to my former student for having mentored her and encouraged her and she was going to drop out of physics, but she’s going to continue now in physics because of this experience. And my student said, “I never understood why you spent time with me 20 years ago because I knew you must have more important things to do, but now I know why. Because nothing has felt that good, in anything I’ve done in the last 20 years, as that student writing to me.” It’s that need to find a connection with an individual who can open up the institution’s resources and really make it an experience that’s valuable and life-changing rather than just another step along the path.
One professor who had a profound influence on me was the biologist E.O. Wilson. And the funny thing is, for the last 30 years, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that no other teacher has affected my life the way E.O. Wilson has. But I never told E.O. Wilson that. So, after procrastinating for years, or decades even. Last summer, I finally took the time to track down his email address, and I sent him a long message of thanks. Despite being 91 years old, he wrote back immediately. His note in response was short but satisfying. It said, “Dear Steve, thank you for your wonderful May 29th email. It alone is sufficient reward for my teaching effort at Harvard. Warmest, Ed.” Sadly, E.O. Wilson passed away last December. I would have loved for him to be a guest on this show, but I’m so glad that I told him before it was too late how deeply he influenced me. Are there people who’ve changed your life for the better? Have you ever told them? What better time than today, than right now, to do so? How about you do that — write to your mentor and then write to me. Tell me how it went. How did it feel? How did they respond? I’d love to hear about it. Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next week.
People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
HELFAND: And about a third of the students said to me, “This was so much fun. I didn’t know this is what science was.”
- David J. Helfand, professor of astronomy at Columbia University.
- “Why Milankovitch (Orbital) Cycles Can’t Explain Earth’s Current Warming,” by Alan Buis (Ask NASA Climate, 2020).
- A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind, by David J. Helfand (2016).
- “David Helfand’s New Quest,” by Tamar Lewin (The New York Times, 2012).
- “Tenure: Thanks but No Thanks,” by David J. Helfand (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1995).
- “A Search for X-Ray Binary Stars in their Quiescent Phase,” by David J. Helfand (Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1980).