Minimalism: Space. Light. Object.

Minimalist artists challenge us to see simplicity, or perhaps beyond it. Minimalism emerged in New York in the 1960’s, yet through this massive exhibition at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum and the National Gallery – more than 150 paintings, sculptures, object, light and sound installations – the  visitor is shown its much deeper roots traced back to earlier Asia philosophies and artistic styles.


This image by artist and activist Ai Weiwei entitled Sunflower Seeds is deceptively simple. He employed more than 1600 artisans in Jingdezhen, a city historically known for its porcelain production, to handcraft millions of unique sunflower seeds (more than 100 million in the original installation at the Tate Modern in London in 2010). What does this say to the viewer with regard to the individual’s relationship to society, to being lost in a crowd, to consumerism or the “Made in China” narrative of mass production – and ultimately to asserting the value of each person?



During my senior year of college, I took a 20th Century Art class and fell in love with the serenity of Mark Rothko’s pallets, the dynamism of Jackson Pollock, and the social commentary (and humor) of Andy Warhol. I often have said that if I had taken this course much earlier, I would likely have become an art historian or curator rather than a social psychologist.


Exhibition notes of Minimalism: Space. Light. Object. link art and science through a quote attributed to Albert Einstein (though reflected also in the Laws of parsimony or Occam’s Razor):  “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”


The exhibition is on view through 14 April 2019. Performance of Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions at the National Gallery features two YNC students: Adam Lau and Nirali Desai.  

恭喜发财 Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy New Year … of the Pig

In the Chinese Zodiac, pigs represent luck, good fortune, prosperity and indulgence.


Thinking about pigs, I couldn’t help but consider the many “literary” pigs I know.  There are the men transformed into pigs by Circe in Homer’s Odyssey, and the Calydonian Boar in Greek mythology.  And who can forget Animal Farm, George Orwell’s Napoleon leading the animal revolution against the farmer as well as one of the crescendo scenes in Lord of the Flies by William Golding?


There are of course the children’s pigs I got to know when my children were small like Beatrix Potter’s Aunt Pettitoes, Holly Hobbie’s Toot & Puddle, Mr. Frumble by Richard Scarry, and AA  Milne’s Piglet, Winnie the Pooh’s best friend – often timid yet striving to be brave. There is Wilbur in EB White’s Charlotte’s Web, saved by the spider, Charlotte, weaving fantastical words in her web.  Shared recently by a friend in my book group is this quote, reminding us to lift up one another: “A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” ― E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web.


Which brings me to a final thought of the day about kindness.  This week, NYT columnist David Brooks wrote an article entitled Kindness Is a Skill.  Worth a read, I think….  Wishing you a joyous new year and Happy Year of the Pig!




Martin Luther King, Jr: His Global Legacy

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Berkeley, Calif., in 1967. Associated Press

On the third Monday of January, the United States commemorates the birth, life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) – an American Baptist minister and activist – as a national holiday, often heralded as a Day of Service. King remains a towering figure in the American Civil Rights movement. His efforts led to the passage of the US Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.


As well, his reach was global. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, fighting against racial and social injustice through non-violence and civil disobedience.  He inspired social movements and impacted profound change in South Africa and Northern Ireland. King called for unity in Germany, standing at the Wall that divided East from West. In East Berlin, he preached: “Regardless of the barriers of race, creed, ideology, or nationality, there is an inescapable destiny which binds us together. There is a common humanity which makes us sensitive to the sufferings of one another.”


King also had connections to Asia.  He was deeply inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his tenets of non-violent resistance and Satyagraha (Sanskrit: सत्याग्रह, ’truth force’). He was a fierce opponent of the War in Vietnam and spoke against colonialism and imperialism.


And King had ties to the academy.  He graduated with a BA in Sociology from Morehouse College (1948), a BDiv from Crozer Theological Seminary (1951), and a PhD from Boston University (1955, dissertation entitled A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman). Dr. King was the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates, including at Yale, Wesleyan, Oberlin and Grinnell. In 1967, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law at Newcastle University.  A half-century later, in 2017, the University unveiled a bronze statue of King as a tribute to the values of social justice for which he stood; they hosted a year-long series of events to explore racism, poverty and war through education and art.


Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, months before his 40th birthday.  Imagine the world today if he had lived and been able to carry out his dream (text/video) for a better world, mobilizing others with his powerful vision and oration.  King’s vision sadly remains unrealized, yet as potent as ever – especially with global populist movements along with divisive tenets of nationalism and anti-immigration.


The BBC has named Martin Luther King, Jr. one of the most influential people of the 20th Century, an icon.  He was feared and loathed by many during his lifetime, yet his service to humanity and social justice are indisputable.  Dr. King called for developing an “overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole… a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation … and all-embracing and unconditional love for all.”  Amen.



Inspiring Ideas


In 1932, the Annual Review of Biochemistry was published – the first series in the Annual Reviews portfolio.  Annual Reviews is a non-profit publisher “dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society.” They publish sets of reviews across nearly 50 disciplines in science and social science. Each review is intended to authoritative for the field, synthesizing theory, research and practice on important and timely topics as noted by the leading experts in each field.


In 2018, Annual Reviews published more than 1200 review articles. This week, they shared those most downloaded and read. They are incredibly diverse – a few that might be of interest to some of our faculty include reviews on gender stereotypes, immigration, designing difference in difference studies, single-cell gene expression, plastics in the marine environment, emotions and decision making, several on CRISPR and one on weird animals, sex and genome evolution.


Over the years, I have read with great interest articles from the Annual Reviews of Psychology and Public Health along with those in Nutrition, Immunology and Biomedical Data Science (among others).  I read them for intellectual curiosity, to consider for use in my classes, and to fuel my own research agenda. For example, it is quite typical for an article in the Annual Reviews to highlight trajectories and gaps in the field of study.  I have used these expert opinions to provide a seed of an idea or the rationale for funding my next research project.


The very first article in this extensive series published in 1932 was on permeability (Rudolf Höber).  More than 80 years later, these reviews continue to promote inquiry and discourse, inspire and drive discovery



Dear Colleagues,

Best wishes to you and your families for a joyous holiday season and a new year filled with good health, great joy and deep peace.




Desiderata, Max Ehrmann, 1927


Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.  As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly: and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant: they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble, it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the Universe, no less than the tree and the stars; and you have the right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all the sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.


“All the News That’s Fit to Print”

I miss reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings.  The real paper, +/-500 pages, in print, ink on my fingers.  Drinking coffee, and this time of year – a fire in the fireplace. My typical approach:  front-section news, opinion-editorials, then style, travel and arts.  I like Modern Love and Corner Office and 72 Hours in ….  On Tuesdays, I read the Science Times with gusto.


This week, the Science Times in the New York Times turned 40 years old.  They celebrated with a series of articles entitled, 11 Things We’d Really Like to Know (e.g., When Will We Solve Mental Illness, Will We Survive Climate Change, Where’s Our Warp Drive to the Stars), along with a bonus by Dennis Overbye entitled, Honestly, Some Questions Are Better Left Unanswered.  If your tastes run more to the literary, then nothing better in my book than the New York Times annual 100 Notable Books in fiction, poetry and non-fiction.


As I have spoken with many of you about the impending holiday season and mid-academic year break, you have shared a desire to spend uninterrupted time with family and friends, to travel, and to “just read.” Other than my own loved ones, lobster rolls on a summer afternoon in Connecticut, and the New York Times on Sundays, not too much I miss….   Happy reading!

Operations & Aspirations

Last week at the Full Faculty Meeting, I shared some of my ideas with you on OUR first 100 days together.  These included a series of operational changes underway or planned, including but not limited to review of faculty workload and workload equity, capstones, annual review process and event planning support. I talked about streamlining practices to enhance productivity.  We also discussed some aspirations such as strengthening our culture of research as well as innovations in teaching and experiential learning.  Most importantly, I am interested to explore new opportunities and ideas with you.


One hundred songs that inspire progress and benefit a cause for change.

I invite your suggestions and ideas at any time – and soon via a faculty survey.  Please do not hesitate to send me your ideas via email or take me up on my invitation to lunch.  And with American Thanksgiving celebrated this week, I will take one more opportunity to say thank you to all of you for your dedication and inspiration.

Academic Integrity

Image result for modern scale of justice


Integrity is a cornerstone of academic life.  Indeed, integrity is a cornerstone of life. Yet, we are living in a time where lies are claimed as truths, and truths are cast as fiction. I am deeply troubled by world politics: the rise of autocratic leaders, action without consequence, the undermining of the media, the disdain of evidence, and the unleashing of discrimination, incivility and divisiveness.

In academic circles, we too are faced with unethical behaviors. There are more scientific retractions than ever, and the largest ever database went live last month:  A food scientist from Cornell committed academic misconduct, using problematic analytic approaches and misreporting research data. The Chief Medical Officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering failed to disclose industry ties and millions of dollars in payments.  And the former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (who achieved so much good while in office) was arrested and charged with sexual abuse.


We can and must do more.  We can uphold high standards in all we do.  And, we can lead by example – for each other, our students and ourselves.




Joyous Deepavali


Deepavali is the Hindu festival of lights – bringing light and joy to the darkest night of the Hindu month of Kartika. It is a holy day to honor Rama-chandra, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who returned after years of exile during which he won the battle against the demon king Ravana.  I only know the story superficially, guided by my own curiosity to learn more while observing this beautiful festival in Singapore. And yet, I resonate with the messages regarding the spiritual victory of light over darkness, goodness over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.  Joyous Deepavali to all those who celebrated this week.

Tree of Life

I was in the United States last week when I heard about the latest mass shooting:  11 dead at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This brutal anti-Semitic attack came the same week as 11 pipe bombs were sent to Democratic leaders and journalists.


In Singapore, last February, I woke up to the news of the high school shooting in Parkland Florida, and cried. Since our “own” Connecticut massacre in Sandy Hook in 2012, there have been more than 200 school shootings in the United States – an average of seven per month. Schools and universities (e.g., Virginia Tech), churches (Charleston SC, Sutherland Springs TX), concerts (Las Vegas NV), film screenings (Aurora CO) and gay nightclubs (Orlando FL). We are not alone.


Many of you may be wondering why I am writing about this for our Faculty Newsletter. The truth is because I find it hard to think of other things more important to write about this week.  Lux and Veritas/Light and Truth is Yale’s motto.  Fundamentally, I believe in our role as academics to bring light and truth and evidence and reason and compassion to bear truth to the world’s most difficult problems – be they moral, ethical, humanistic, scientific or other.


Retired US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens called for a Repeal of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment (right to bear arms) arguing that it has provided a “propaganda weapon of immense power” blocking constructive gun control legislation (New York Times, 27 March 2018). In Singapore, unlawful possession of guns is illegal. There are harsh penalties and fines; there are sane policies and safe streets. There are fewer gun deaths in one decade in Singapore than in one day in the United States.


Tree of Life, Gustav Klimt, 1905 Courtesy of


Like all Jews around the world commemorating Shabbat last Saturday morning, congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue were reading from the Old Testament chapters of Genesis (18:1-22:24), Vayera (“He appeared”).  This Biblical portion features Abraham and Sarah along with three strangers who arrive at their tent. Instead of fearing the strangers’ presence, the couple welcomes them, feeds them and provides shelter.  We all come from different backgrounds, traditions and faiths – most often strangers, when we arrived. With our ongoing commitment, Yale-NUS College must always be a place of welcome, of inclusion and of hope.