Several Panthers recently answered the call to suggest books they have enjoyed during 2023. May these titles offer you some food for thought, or maybe simply an escape, during the winter break.
First-gen innovator: she rises
“The Worlds I See” by Fei-Fei Li, the grandmother of AI, is the heroic journey of an immigrant Chinese girl from abject poverty in New Jersey to the highest pinnacle of intellectual achievement at Princeton, Cal Tech and Stanford. Along the way, she shows her own grit, the sustaining curiosity of a world-class scientist and the early days of this century’s developments in AI. The inspiration for me is that once again an immigrant woman has reached the pinnacle of her profession and this time in the most advanced technology shaping the future of humanity.
–Robert H. Hacker
Director, StartUP FIU
Page-turning fiction: a poet's prose
“The Deceptions” by Jill Bialosky is a novel driven by a poet narrator—her ambition, her intelligence, her desire and all that has been squelched. This protagonist will fascinate any reader who has felt marginalized, belittled and erased by the patriarchy. “The Deceptions” unfolds as a narrative of awakening, an education in Greek gods and goddesses (including photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and a literary critique. The main character is a spouse and mother (a new empty nester), a teacher, a daughter to an ailing mother and a mentor to a young literary neighbor. The poet’s world is upended when a more famous visiting poet comes to the all-boy’s school where she works. She shares with him her ambitious book manuscript, sonnets that reimagine the story of Leda and Zeus. I’m hesitant to say much more as the twists and turns lead to an explosive conclusion.
Distinguished University Professor, English
Politics: what's old is what's new
Federico Finchelstein’s 2017 “Fascism and Populism in History” (first published in Spanish as “Al facismo a populismo en la historia”) is terrifically useful for decoding global politics, past and present. Populism, which became the main way of limiting democracies across the globe after WWII, is more than a style. It’s an adaptable ideology that promotes a single, sacred “people” (read: race or ethnicity), usually embodied by a charismatic leader. Populism isn’t exactly antidemocratic. Instead, it seeks to make democracies more authoritarian. And it’s not left or right. Anyone can be a populist. The book stands out in centering Latin America’s experience with leaders like Hugo Chávez and considering Trumpism in the U.S., but it also folds in consideration of global leaders like Marine Le Pen, Silvio Berlusconi and Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s a voice from the recent past - the updated English version of the book is five years old - warning us to learn to identify global populism and distinguish it from neofascism (which is fully anti-democratic), as it increasingly dismantles pluralistic democracy from within.
Distinguished University Professor, History
The physical world: explorations on a granular level
Throughout 2023, I've endeavored to grasp how our world evolved into its current state, our roles in it and what the future might hold. As an architect with a background in classical languages and literature, applied mathematics and archaeology, I'm captivated by the interweaving of disparate narratives and the potential of such historical complexity to envision a better world. Ed Conway's new book, “Material World: The Six Raw Materials Shape Modern Civilization” has been an excellent guide in this quest. It's a riveting journey into the core (sometimes literally!) of our planet and civilization, uncovering the story of six “foundational” materials: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. Conway's talent lies in transforming the ordinary into something he describes as “the magical,” enthusiastically encouraging us to find wonder in everyday materials. As a researcher, creative practitioner and professor deeply fascinated by the synthesis of the built and natural environments with technology, art and science, I found his insights captivating. Conway explores these materials' origins, journeys and impacts, illustrating how they have shaped our world and point to possible futures. His analysis of sand, for instance, unveils remarkable global odysseys, showcasing its diverse forms and uses in concrete, fiber optic cables, vaccine vials, solar panels and smartphone chips and its surprising starring role in World War I, during which highly refined glass lenses were essential tools. At points, although perhaps not quite enough, Conway’s investigation questions traditional concepts of “progress” that made these materials so essential. He points to a future where innovations in hydrogen power, graphene and carbon nanotubes could transform our resource use, moving us toward a “break-even year” of a more harmonious and sustainable human innovation-material resource balance. Ultimately, “Material World“ takes readers on a wild journey through labs, mines, salt baths, power grids, mountaintops and seabeds, weaving together narratives involving history, health, the environment, innovation, urban development, science, global politics and economics. It's a captivating read for those who are mystified and intrigued by the intricacies and potential of our world.
–John A. Stuart, AIA
Distinguished University Professor, Department of Architecture
Associate Dean for Cultural and Community Engagement
College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts
Climate science: denying deniers and alarmists alike
Are you tired of climate change deniers and catastrophists alike? Are you looking for a knowledgeable, levelheaded perspective on this relevant topic? Then read “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters” by Steven E. Koonin. The author holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from MIT, has taught at Caltech and NYU and served as undersecretary for science in the Department of Energy, where his portfolio included the climate research program and energy technology strategy. He offers a refreshingly candid perspective on climate change science in a language that is easy for any layperson to understand, while respecting the science and the integrity of the scientific method. His analysis of the existing data both confirms that climate change is a very real phenomenon and simultaneously debunks many of the exaggerations promoted by overzealous activists and echoed by a shallow media. Will raising oceans swamp coastal cities like Miami? Eventually. Are hurricanes getting bigger and stronger? Not really. Koonin’s book deals with these questions with an informed, sober, honest approach much needed in these frenzied times.
–Sebastian A. Arcos
Associate Director, Cuban Research Institute
Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs
Academic freedom: what is it and isn't
Academic tenure has been in the news lately, with tenure being removed from public universities in several states. The common misconception is that tenure means faculty retain protection from being fired for any reason. Those outside of academia then rightfully wonder: ‘If I can be fired from my job, why can't professors? What makes them so special?’ The fact is, tenured professors can be fired for committing crime, not completing assigned duties and other things. But holding tenure does mean they can't lose a job because they espouse unpopular ideas. One of the most important societal functions of academics is to generate, discuss and teach ideas – even ones that many people might disagree with at the time. Tenure is protection against political interference and to ensure that at least some of our best and brightest can be attracted to scholarship and teaching. “Understanding Academic Freedom” by Henry Reichman explains all of this and makes a powerful, easily understood case for tenure and academic freedom more generally.
Eminent Scholar, School of Computing and Information Sciences
College of Engineering & Computing