In Memoriam: Remembering Our Fallen

Frank Glick took this photo of an eagle on a gravestone at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

Frank Glick took this photo of an eagle on a gravestone at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

On this day, a sacred event in the consciousness of American citizens, as we remember those who lost their lives fighting for our freedoms, we are reminded that most of us cannot truly understand the sacrifice of those who serve in the all-volunteer armed forces. I have always believed that the greatest grief that can befall a human being is the loss of a son or daughter, and many Gold Star families live with this loss on a daily basis. Today marks the first time in 14 years that the United States observes Memorial Day while not engaged in a major ground war, but enlistment in the armed forces still involves a pledge of service and of sacrifice. Two poignant remarks from the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, one delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and the other by President Barack Obama, really resonated with me. On the aftermath of loss, Carter offered a message of hope and resilience, often embodied by the image of the phoenix rising up from the ashes:

“Reflect, for a moment, on the way our nation’s flag is flown on Memorial Day. First it is hoisted briskly to the top, with the same clarity of purpose we see in all those who step forward to join our all-volunteer force. Then it is solemnly, soberly lowered to half-staff, a tribute to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. But it doesn’t stay there. At noon, it is raised back toward the sky – signaling our will to recover after tragedy, and symbolizing the great strength and resilience that characterizes not only our nation, but also those who defend it, and their families.”

And the second by our Commander in Chief on the mutual sense of family shared by Americans everywhere:

“These sons and daughters, these brothers and sisters who lay down their lives for us – they belong to us all. They’re our children, too. We benefit from their light, their positive influence on the world.”

We do not exist as nation of separate, individual families; rather, we form a collective quilt in the American fabric, beautiful in its diversity and wholeness. May we never forget the legacies of those who made the ultimate sacrifice and may we strive to be worthy of their unfailing devotion. May God bless our fallen heroes and families, and may He bless the United States of America.


The Sociological Perspective


Tristan Bridges argues that “if you can’t find a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to put on your syllabus for a sociology course, there’s a good chance you’re not teaching sociology.”

This month, I am taking an introductory sociology class in preparation for the “Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior” section of the new MCAT, and it has got me thinking a lot about how genetics and sociology seem to face a lot of the same challenges when it comes to obtaining certain types of data largely due to moral and ethical considerations. After the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, the arduous process of genome annotation began. Since it’s not socially acceptable to force people to mate with each other and we can’t always find people who happen to breed in an informative way, we oftentimes use population data over time, genome-wide association studies being a good example of such an approach, to examine individual markers for possible associations between genotypes and phenotypes. Unfortunately, GWAS often fails to employ random sampling, and 96% of subjects included in GWAS have been people of European descent, as of 2013. Generally speaking, scientific disciplines (and others as well, I suspect) often disproportionately sample from WEIRD (western, education, industrialized, rich, democratic) countries, whether studying genetic diseases or human gut microbiota.

While sociology and the sciences have much in common, I’ve also noticed some major differences. The sociological notion of race, for instance, has no scientific basis. I have oftentimes heard the argument that race must exist because people look different and these kinds of differences can be clustered into broad groups, but the genetic signatures that correlate with large land masses are neither exclusive nor unique to any particular group of people. The idea of race serves to reflect patterns of social and economic inequity; race is socially constructed, not biologically based.

An op-ed published in the New York Times yesterday reminded me of some of our assigned reading from Best and Horiuchi on urban legends and Schuman‘s mention of “Newton and his apple in legends about scientific discovery.” In his piece, Mlodinow argues that urban myths surrounding scientific discoveries trivialize the scientific process and its complexities. The author concludes by citing the need for instant gratification among the negative effects of the media today, as such needs are diametrically opposed to the thoroughness of the scientific method. However, some education experts like Lilian Katz argue that the immediacy of social media provides an effective, incentivized social learning tool for teenagers, as the reward of dopamine release is thought to help solidify memories and enhance motivation. As with anything else, the instant gratification aspect of social media appears to be a two headed coin, a double edged sword.

The Modern-Day Scheherazade


Last night, my parents and I had the privilege of seeing John Adams conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a work of his own composition, Scheherazade.2 (tickets were half off in honor of Mother’s Day weekend). I was especially excited to hear Adams’ re-imagination of the Arabian Nights folktales since I had decided to compare The Thousand and One Nights to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade for my final term paper in comparative literature this past semester. (On a side note, scientists sometimes explain the idea of epigenetic regulation of gene expression using a symphony orchestra as an analogy in which the specific notes of the symphony are akin to the genome, or the DNA sequence, and the finer subtleties of the piece, such as dynamics, tempo, and instrumentation, constitute the epigenome. This analogy, however, invariably begs the question, “Who is the conductor?” to which there is no simple answer. I prefer the computer analogy where the genome constitutes the hardware of the machine, the platform on which everything else takes place, and the epigenome functions as software. Ironically enough, Adams joked that the title Scheherazade.2 sounds like a software update and explained that he intended his piece as an adaptation for the modern-day Scheherazade, a heroine in the fight for gender equality.) The four-movement piece, written for violinist Leila Josefowicz, whom Adams considers “a perfect embodiment of that kind of empowered strength and energy that a modern Scheherazade would possess,” differs quite a bit from its 19th century predecessor in many ways. While both pieces are staged in four movements and feature the character of Scheherazade as the central protagonist (represented by violin motifs), the two works convey different themes and ranges of emotions.

Adams calls his piece a “dramatic symphony,” and dramatic, it was, indeed. The first movement, “Tale of the Wise Young Woman—Pursuit by the True Believers,” introduces Scheherazade in “elegiac lines that keep breaking into skittish flights,” according to New York Times author Anthony Tommasini. Our young heroine begins to sound frantic, hurried, and even manic once the true believers, portrayed as a series of jagged chords, set their sights on her. The second movement consists of a love scene, violent at first but eventually resolving into mutual hope and understanding. In the third movement (my personal favorite), “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards,” our heroine is tried by a court of religious zealots, culminating with Scheherazade being sentenced to death. The section also makes significant use of a cimbalom, better known as a “hammered dulcimer,” played by Chester Englander. This movement reminded me of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at times, specifically the opera section, which references Scaramouche, the fandango, Galileo, Figaro, and Bismillah as rival factions fighting over the narrator’s soul. Music scholar Judith Peraino had once described this sequence as a “comic courtroom trial and a rite of passage… one chorus prosecutes, another defends, while the hero presents himself as meek though wily.” In Adams’ composition, the protagonist continues to calmly respond to the accusations flung against her until she is finally condemned to death, at which point Josefowicz begins playing sul ponticello (bowing right over the bridge), creating a skeletal, scratching sound, evocative of Scheherazade’s anguish.

The final movement, “Escape, Flight, and Sanctuary,” involves more scurrying and agitation until eventually alighting on a more bittersweet note, signifying that Scheherazade has reached a haven in which she is not necessarily content but is at least safe. Gabbie Watts of Atlanta’s NPR station describes the conclusion as a “Shostakovich kind of sunshine.” Herein lies one of the most striking differences between Adams’ and Rimsky-Korsakov’s versions of the story. In the modern retelling, Scheherazade manages to escape her oppressors, but her oppressors essentially remain unchanged in their ideas and ways, while in the original story, Scheherazade successfully transforms the Sultan, who recants his murderous vow, and saves countless lives in the process. Through this lens, the original Scheherazade seems more empowered and self-actualized than her modern-day counterpart. Furthermore, Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition seemed to convey a broader range of emotion from stern acerbity to subdued tenderness and tranquility. In contrast, Adams’ piece always possesses elements of consternation, as Scheherazade constantly faces new threats and adopts the role of a fugitive or refugee. Finally, while Rimsky-Korsakov told a flowing narrative through his composition, Adams’ work consists of a series of more discrete images.

While Scheherazade.2 may not have been my cup of tea (perhaps I am too much of a philistine), I am nonetheless glad that we are still afforded the opportunity to hear new works of classical music to this day. A couple years ago, NPR’s Deceptive Cadence interviewed David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, about the difficulties contemporary composers face in having their works performed. Audiences are not as comfortable with the unknown and often desire a certain degree of assurance that they are listening to music of the highest quality in their limited leisure time. Robertson even described challenges to the introduction of older works not already established in the classical repertoire. He discussed his lack of success in getting the First Symphony by Vasily Kalinnikov, a piece from the 19th century, performed except in instances where he was music director because the overwhelming sentiment was, “Here’s this big unknown symphony by someone whose name sounds like an automatic rifle.” Given the sometimes hostile atmosphere of professional life as a composer, listening to new compositions like those of John Adams inspires hope for future generations of budding composers.