Category: 3@2 Author Interviews

3@2 Interview: Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack on The New Universe and the Human Future

Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack, credit Paul Schraub

The newest 3@2 Interview brings Terry Lecturers Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack, authors of The New Universe and the Human Future, to discuss the new scientific picture of the universe and its meaning for our lives, societies, and long-term future as a species.


Yale University Press: Why does it matter to have an accurate picture of the universe? What is the new picture?

Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack:  We need an accurate map of reality to protect ourselves and our species in our increasingly technological world in the difficult times that are coming.  Part of that accurate map is understanding how we humans arose out of this strange universe.  When we discover the underlying principles of reality, they help give us a cosmologically long term view.  When our consciousness expands to absorb that, it changes our sense of what we are and makes it not only more exciting but more accurate and thus more likely to succeed in the real world.

Everything astronomers can see with the most sophisticated instruments in every wavelength — all the stars, planets, gas, dust, and hundreds of billions of distant galaxies — totals less than half of one percent of what’s out there.  A few percent are atoms of hydrogen and helium floating around, which are invisible because they are unlit by stars.  But over 95% of the content of the universe consists of two mysterious presences that are invisible in principle because they do not interact with light.  Dark matter (23%) holds the galaxies together and protects them from dark energy (72%), which is accelerating the expansion  of the universe and tearing apart the space between gravitationally bound regions (like galaxies or clusters of galaxies).  The invisible drama between these two has at last been discovered.  It is a large part of our origin story.

YUP: Where do we come from?  What are we made of?  How do we humans fit into the Big Picture?

NEA & JRP:  Understanding the scientific story is step one.  After that, we can begin to feel our identity in the universe by sending our consciousness backward through time, down past our parents and grandparents, past the countless generations before them, our ancestors roaming from continent to continent, our primate ancestors, down through all the animals that preceded them, back through the earliest life, into a single cell, down into the complex chemicals that made it possible, down into the molten planet and the forming solar system, back to the birth of our carbon and oxygen and iron atoms in exploding stars far across the galaxy, back to the formation of the galaxy itself deep inside a giant halo of dark matter, back through the universal expansion to the creation of our elementary particles — the particles we are made of at this very moment — in the Big Bang.   We are made of history. Who we are is the sum total of our history.  How far back we understand that history—how much of our own identity we claim—is up to us.  No humans had this choice before.  We are the first to know our real origin story.  This is a very special moment.

YUP:  What is the connection between a scientific picture of the universe and the future of humanity?

NEA & JRP:  The human species is at a turning point.  We are living through the last decades of exponential growth in resource use worldwide and hitting limits.  We are changing the climate, acidifying and overfishing the oceans, and killing entire species of plants and animals at the greatest rate since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  These problems can only be solved on a planetary level, but for that we need some common ground.  It is possible that a unifying story of our origins, based on science, combined with a truly long-term perspective “could solidify the bonds of humankind,” to quote Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, who was commenting at a conference of federal judges on our earlier book, The View from the Center of the Universe.  There are also many ways that cosmological concepts can become an entirely new metaphorical language that can help free us from narrow habits of thinking about politics, economics, and identity.


Nancy Ellen Abrams is an attorney, philosopher of science, and lecturer. Joel R. Primack is Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Both are at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Watch the authors in conversation with Deepak Chopra on Deepak HomeBase or their TEDx Santa Cruz talk.

3@2 Interview: Peggy and Murray Schwartz on the Dance of Pearl Primus

Peggy & Murray Schwartz, credit Stan Sherer

In our newest 3@2 Interview, we asked Peggy and Murray Schwartz, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and professor at Emerson College respectively, about their intimate knowledge of legendary dancer, Pearl Primus (1919-1994).  A noted anthropologist in her tireless studies of Afro-Caribbean cultures and folklores and her pioneering concepts of dance anthropology, Primus incorporated social and racial protest into her choreography and became a politically significant figure as well. She briefly sympathized with the Communist Party and toured the American South with a mixed race company. The FBI created a file for her even before the McCarthy era, and she was active in the campaign to end Jim Crow laws. In their new book, The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus, the Schwartzes recall their first meeting with the dancer in 1980 which began a deep friendship that lasted until her death in 1994. In these years there were countless phone calls, dinners, academic discussions, and even surprise visits that shaped their perspective of the woman largely responsible for bringing African dance to contemporary American audiences.

Yale University Press: Did you decide to write about Pearl Primus during her lifetime?

Primus family portrait, New York, 1920s. Pearl Primus (right), Source: Schwartz Collection

Peggy Schwartz & Murray Schwartz: The decision to write a biography of Pearl Primus crept up on us.  We sat with her, each of us, many times as she told stories, often the same ones, in the manner of a griot.  Oral traditions – you need to hear the story at least three times.  It was as though she was preparing us for the role of biographers by telling us the names of friends, colleagues, places, and traditions.  But there was never talk of writing her story.  Some of these conversations took place in Murray’s office, some in our kitchen, some in a car, travelling from here to there, occasionally in hotel rooms when at conferences together.  As the need to write about her took hold after her death, we wished we’d interviewed her more systematically in her life.  But such is not the tradition.  She would have resisted the formality.   She died at the age of 74.  As with a parent, you always think there will be more time.  She was so active and vital a presence in our lives, we never imagined our life without her.

YUP: Your book describes Primus’s dances in words, although they are essentially wordless subjects. Was it difficult to find ways to communicate the images and themes of her work?

PS & MS: The meanings of dance exceed the capacities of words, as the body exceeds language.  Describing the dances was a challenge Peggy undertook initially, followed by our up-and-back editing process.  Although not formally a dance critic, Peggy has experienced a life in dance, from early childhood on.  Wonderful teachers taught vision and clarity.  Years and years of teaching honed a vocabulary for description.  The challenge in describing Pearl dancing was that for the most part there are no films of her performances of the famous modern dance protest solos, “Strange Fruit,” “Hard Time Blues,” “Negro Speaks of Rivers.”  There are some films of these as performed by dancers to whom she imparted these masterpieces.  Talking with a dancer she coached and who later set these solos on Peggy’s students gave insight, as did interviewing professional dancers on whom she set African choreographies.

But equally important was uncovering a video of a concert in 1979 in which she performed and re-staged several of her most famous group pieces.  Watching her perform “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” a piece that mourns the death of four young girls in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church gave depth and reality to her incredible power and essence as performer.  Dance at its most basic.  A woman, a mother, sits immobile and alone on a chair.  One by one dancers enter and surround her, attempting to lift her back into her life, to help her grieve her lost child so that she herself can live.  As Pearl walks from the place on stage where she describes the dance she was about to perform to where she becomes the mother, immobilized by grief, one watches her transformation with astonishment.

YUP: You have been able to present us with some of Primus’s own poetry and show us that she valued different art forms, from dance to African clothing. How did art affect her life outside of dance?

Pearl and Alphonse Climber, 'Folk Dance', Pearl Primus Collection, American Dance Festival Archives

PS & MS: We are reminded of W.B. Yeats’ line, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”  Pearl presented her self as a work of art, her African dress but one facet of meaningful expression.  When a young reporter in Buffalo asked the meaning of her costume, i.e. her everyday style of dress, she replied with characteristic wit, “I’ll tell you the meaning of mine if you tell me the meaning of yours.”  As early as her high school years, she was mastering the rhythms and ironies of poetry to convey self-aware relations to nature and society.  Her African poetry is a beautiful evocation of the richness and poignancy of her experiences there, and she carried this eloquence into her telling of stories in all kinds of settings.  For Pearl anthropology was not only a field of study, it was also and simultaneously a way of living.

As an artist there’s a way in which Pearl (and we explain in the book that from our first meeting she was Pearl to us, not Dr. Primus or Mama Pearl or Professor Primus) was her own greatest creation. Whether sweeping down the aisle of an elementary school auditorium at the start of a lecture-demonstration with rhythmic drums announcing her arrival, colorful fabrics swirling around her accented by bright beads, arms festooned with bracelets and gesturing greetings to an excited audience, or entering downstage right in a more formal setting to introduce a concert or a dance about to be performed, the message she wanted to convey was one of authenticity. Authenticity. As she stood and waited for applause to fade, her dramatic entrance announced, “Here I am, here we are, here is a journey on which I am singularly qualified to lead you.  Follow me. Join me in the rhythm, the color, the texture, the mood and nuance of the African cultures I embody.”  Only then would she speak her words of welcome and introduction.

To learn more about Primus’s legacy and keep track of The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus, you can follow on Facebook.

3@2 Interview: John and Colleen Marzluff on Dog Days, Raven Nights

We’d like to introduce a new column series for the Yale Press Log: the 3@2 interviews, consisting of 3 questions posed to 2 authors, from right here at 302 Temple Street.

Dog Days, Raven Nights: John M. Marzluff and Colleen Marzluff First up are John and Colleen Marzluff, co-authors of the newly published Dog Days, Raven Nights, in which the husband-and-wife biologist team recall their days as young field scientists in the Maine woods-studying the Common Raven. Fresh out of graduate school in Arizona in 1988, the two set off across the country with their dogs, Sitka and Topper, to study with and join insect physiologist turned ornithologist, Bernd Heinrich, who also wrote the Foreword for the book. For three years in the mountainous wild, they observed, studied, and recorded the behavior of ravens, and trained sled dogs to help them across the wintry terrains, all the while forming the personal relationships that have shaped their careers and friendships, not to mention their marriage. Their answers below are distinguished with the same dog (Colleen) and raven (John) icons used to alternate voices in their book.

Yale University Press: Your book strongly advocates that students pursue what they love to do. Even doing what you love, there are always…unfavorable conditions. What were the best and worst parts about the long, sometimes fruitless days, in the observation hut?

Dog icon Colleen Marzluff: It was “Torture in the Hut”, as the title of the chapter says… Boredom, stiffness, frustration—they were all there. Sometimes you would think, “I got up before dawn for this!?” We couldn’t talk, let alone argue, or the ravens would hear us. We sometimes wrote notes to each other, but for the most part, it was a lot of waiting for something to happen. We couldn’t really read a book or play cards because we might have missed something. A real lesson in patience—sometimes like watching paint dry—solitary confinement with a silent partner.

The best was when an experiment yielded results, expected or unexpected; when other critters visited and helped break up the tedium; when we would imagine the birds behaving more like primates we could laugh (silently). Best part is that we survived it. I suppose that could have been a very difficult thing to do for most couples, but we made it!

Raven icon John Marzluff: Because we had to be quiet, Colleen couldn’t argue with me : ) .  Actually, to me once I was in the hut it was always good. The birds were constantly doing something, either the juvenile flock or the adult pair kept me engaged because you never knew WHAT they might do.  One day they would catch a mouse, the next they would play with a toy, or they would utter a vocalization never yet heard. Their activity was constantly amazing to me.  Of course the very best times were when an experiment actually worked.  For example, when we were investigating the meanings of various vocalizations we would put a loudspeaker into the aviary and broadcast the call of interest.  Begs by juveniles under attack, for instance, we believed did two things: cooled down aggressive adults and recruited additional hungry juveniles.  With this hypothesis in mind we played begs and other control sounds throughout the aviary expecting to lure our captive juveniles toward the speaker.  Sure enough, as soon as the begging began it was as if a dinner bell was rung; the juvenile horde hopped, ran, and flew toward the speaker.  If only we could have better read the expression upon their face when they found only a speaker and not a beggar!

YUP: How has your view of the raven changed since your time in Maine?

Raven icon JM: In Maine ravens were objects of scientific study.  They were intriguing and always interesting to me, but I saw them only as a wild animal that very occasionally interacted with humans.  Now I see them as fully interactive with and influential on humans.  Not only are they interesting wild creatures, but they are totems and creators to some people, motivators and instigators to others, and the objects of daily interaction to still others.  I now see ravens and people as completely intertwined; as we affect them so to do they affect us.  We are in no insignificant part who we are because of our species’ coevolution with the raven.  So now I believe I better understand ravens. They are animals and they are important cultural icons to many people.

YUP: How did you find a training class for dogsledding in Arizona? Beyond the necessity for winters in Maine and Idaho, what kept your interest in training sled dogs, specifically?

Dog icon CM: In Arizona, we helped place a stray Siberian Husky with a staff member at Northern Arizona University. Through her we found out about a guy who was teaching dogsledding. The dogs needed some exercise and Sitka supposedly had the genes for pulling so we tried the class. One class led to another and we became “hooked”, knowing Maine was in the near future.

Training sled dogs felt very natural to us. As animal behaviorists we saw how we could shape behavior into a product like a well-trained team. There is something about the feeling you have on the back of a sled with a team of dogs that you know and trained, cooperatively pulling you down a trail. As we got faster, we wanted more speed and more dogs. I suppose you could call it an addiction. But, as avid outdoors people who studied nature, it was a perfect fit. Most of the dog sledding people we met had common interests in the outdoors, so the attraction to the social side of things held us as well.

Raven icon JM: I stayed interested in running sled dogs for two reasons: first the unique companionship of being part of a canine team and second challenging competition.  Running dogs is like being a part of a wolf pack. You have to read the dogs’ emotions and work as a single unit if you are going to be successful.  Being successful allows you to see nature in a new light; as seen by a quietly moving, efficient predator.  It was always a thrill to imagine what was around the next bend in the trail and to observe how the dogs responded to it. Racing dogs is a great sport rich in history and rivalry.  This competition egged me into getting more and faster dogs. As Colleen says, you simply get hooked on going faster, further, and with less effort.

John M. Marzluff is a highly regarded scientist known for his work on the ecology and behavioral biology of jays, crows, ravens, and their relatives. He is professor of wildlife science, College of the Environment, University of Washington, and the author of four books, including In the Company of Crows and Ravens. Colleen Marzluff trained in wildlife biology, worked as a research technician, and is an expert in the raising and training of sled dogs and herding dogs. They live in Snohomish, Washington.

Read more about the authors’ adventures in their book, Dog Days, Raven Nights.