Posts in: Block 4

Bad News From Katowice

Late last week our delegation was joined by President Tiefenthaler, Provost Townsend, and one of the Colorado College Trustees, Marc St. John. Their presence at the COP underscores the importance of climate change for CC. We had a wonderful time leading them around to events and chatting with them about our research projects. A hearty thank you to them for taking time out of their busy schedules to come to coal-y Katowice and attend this important conference.

You may be wondering what we do from day to day so I’ll give you a quick rundown. We wake up, hop on a free(!) tram to the venue, which is quite like a giant temporary airport, breeze through security, and start attending events. Events range from attending the technical negotiations of the Katowice rulebook (called Plenaries) to going to a wine tasting centered around the effects of climate change on the wine industry. In addition, there is an entire building filled with country and business pavilions, think Epcot for climate change professionals. Each country has a small area decked out with their flag where they hold events, providing seating for conference goers, and share their perspectives on climate change. (I am sitting in the Austria Pavilion right now where they have outlets (a rarity inside the venue) and free hazelnut wafers). We attend events for 6-10 hours each day.

The COP is an emotional rollercoaster, something I neither anticipated nor understood before coming. As all the countries argue about the technicalities of the Rulebook (which really feels like the last hope for combatting climate change on an international level), there are hiccups. On Saturday, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Russia stalled the discussions when they said they would not support a clause “welcoming” the UNFCCC-requested Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the effects of 1.5 degrees celsius of warming. This refusal stopped an entire meeting and radically changed the broader mood around the conference from one of tentative hope to one of hostility and despair.

There is some hope yet, as the conference does not end until Friday so there will still be progress.

Hello from the COP

“If we see climate change destroying entire countries, and we know we have the technology to stop this, what is stopping us from taking the necessary action?” – UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés”

This question, from the opening session of the COP weighs heavy on my mind, and the mind of every attendee, as we move into the two-week Paris Agreement Rulebook negotiation period. The principal task of COP24 is finalizing and creating the aforementioned rulebook. Since COP22, negotiators have been working on creating the rules, guidelines, procedures, and institutional mechanisms through which the Paris Agreement contributions will be implemented. Without these rules, the commitments made under the Paris Agreement will be practically meaningless. The tenor of this COP is underscored by the recent IPCC report showing what would happen if the world only warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius (the Paris Agreement ceiling is 2 degrees). Many, including myself, feel that the Paris Agreement is our last chance to make a meaningful dent in climate mitigation, which makes this COP and the ensuing rulebook of utmost importance.

Attending a COP is a hopeful experience, it is the largest international initiative for climate mitigation and adaptation- a refreshing change from the flat out climate denial in Colorado Springs. Seeing people from all over the world come together to solve humanity’s greatest issue is reassuring and satisfying. That being said, within this venue is both incredible selection bias and incredible privilege. People are here precisely because they understand the dire nature of climate change and to some extent it is a giant (UFO-shaped) echo chamber. Unfortunately, those who will be most adversely affected by climate change are not here.

While the COP feels hopeful, it is tinged with a sort of horror. This is the 24th COP and even throughout all the partnerships and agreements achieved over the past two decades, we are still on track to overshoot even the 2 degree goal set by the Paris Agreement. This anecdotal quote from an ex-greenpeace employee who has been to every COP sums it up:

“I’ve been here long enough to be complicit”

 

Our class plus Watson Fellow Theo Hooker outside the COP24 venue

 

Arrival in Katowice

After a class-combined 3 days of travelling, we all arrived safely in Katowice (pronounced cat-oh-vee-cha) and have spent the past 24 hours exploring and getting oriented to our home for the next two weeks.

Last night, we all went to explore the downtown area, ate perogies, and bought towels. While Katowice is a small city, the town center is lively and bustling with buskers singing, men selling fruit, and Christmas carols blaring out of speakers. It is very evident in the city that the COP is coming. Banners are hung on buildings, new bus routes have been created, and every single hotel room in the city is filled.

This morning, we headed to the COP venue to get our badges and it was a surprisingly seamless process. Getting badges (the only means to get into the conference) for this class has been difficult. In years past, the host cities of the COP have been far larger than Katowice, and therefore able to accommodate more conference goers. This year, the number of available badges was significantly smaller than it has been. Through a lot of tenacity on the part of our professor, we were all able to be badged for at least some portion of the conference.

While getting our badges this morning, we met up with CC’s Watson Fellow, Theo Hooker. It was nice to catch up with him and hear about the incredible things he has experienced so far in his travels. Some of us headed to the Christmas market where we went ice skating and then explored some polish cuisine. Tonight, a number of people will go to a string quartet concert at the Katowice National Symphony.

COP events start tomorrow and we have our first full-delegation dinner. I will keep you all updated!

EC 385 Prepares to COP

Hello, and welcome to the block blog for EC 385 “International Economics: the Economics of International Climate Policy,” my name is Lily Weissgold, I am a junior double major in Economics and Environmental Policy and I will be blogging for our class while we are abroad. Our class will be traveling to Katowice, Poland this Thursday to attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP).

This is an incredible opportunity for learning, networking, and critically engaging with the strongest existing international effort to mitigate the effects of and adapt to climate change. One that would not be possible without the flexibility of the block plan. Throughout the semester, including this week, our class has met 11 times to discuss readings, learn UN terms, and even learn how to cook pierogi!

I will be updating this blog regularly, so check back to hear about what we are up to on the ground of the COP. Until then, pozegnanie! (farewell in Polish)

A Mild Case of Stendhal Syndrome

As my adventure in Florence comes to an end, I circle back to the discussion around what makes art so impactful. Though most works, especially those from Renaissance, are static, flat, and unresponsive, I find them personally meaningful. In psychology, the inner stirring that art can inspire is called “aesthetic experience”: a feeling of sublime, and overpowering awe. At the extreme end of the aesthetics spectrum is Stendhal Syndrome (also known as “Florence Syndrome”), which describes the symptoms that sometimes emerge in travelers overcome by artwork.

Stendhal’s Syndrome seems to manifest differently across people, with some victims enduring bouts of severe dizziness, fainting, and heart palpitations, and others experiencing elaborate hallucinations. This year, upon seeing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, one man undressed completely, and struck a Venus-like pose, before he was dragged off by museum security. Though clinicians disagree about whether or not this slew of symptoms represents a discrete medical condition, the bizarre somatic reaction known as Stendhal Syndrome is not uncommon amongst travelers to Florence. 

What causes some people to be so completely overcome by artwork? Though the answer is still unknown, we discussed two possible explanations. The first is that people tend to to rush through art, especially in Florence, because there is so much to see and so little time. Many travelers, trying to “do Florence”  in a couple days, do not have the energy to process the art as completely as they need to. Rushing from the Uffizi to the Medici Palace to the Boboli Gardens, travelers are ultimately buried in unresolved feelings that the works of art evoke. Because these emotions remain unprocessed, people’s bodies shut down, so that they are forced to slow down and acknowledge what they are feeling.

The other explanation is that art evokes an outflow of emotions repressed in everyday life; and because people are not used to such intense feelings, they are overcome by them. We live in a world where the full expression of emotion is not socially accepted. If we saw someone throw down their plate when the restaurant service was slow, or weep deeply when they had a hard day at work, or skip through the halls when their daughter passed her test, we would think they were crazy. Because display rules don’t allow us to experience the full extent of our emotions, we learn to suppress much of what we are feeling.

Yet we have this visceral, often unacknowledged desire, to feel those feelings we have shoved down, causing us to seek out stimuli that will emotionally activate us, like art. Through art, we are allowed a brief outlet for our emotion, empathizing with the subjects in the pieces. In some cases, we actually see our own experiences in the work, inspiring a sort of meta-empathy with ourselves. In other words, our ability to connect with the subjects depicted in art, while retaining some distance from the work, allows us a novel perspective into our own lives. This perspective leads some people to have almost spiritual “aha!” moments of understanding and connectedness upon seeing art. It is possible that this sudden insight and intense emotion overpowers travelers, especially those without an outlet for expression and reflection in their everyday lives, causing Stendhal Syndrome.

Whatever the explanation, and whether we pass out, stay conscious, or get naked, art can be incredibly powerful. Though it is inert and inanimate, art has the capacity to move us. In fact, I think I might be coming down with a mild case of Stendhal Syndrome myself.

A Talk With a Cell

The majority of this week has consisted of learning about proteins, one of the most complex, necessary, and incredible things that make up our bodies and the world around us. Forgive me as I go off on a bit of an absurd tangent – I blame the astonishing nature of cells and proteins for skewing my mind off topic. But I thought, why not share my weird thought digression – after all, it was prompted by something pertaining to class…

Yesterday, a classmate said something like, “you’d think these cells have brains… it is amazing that they do this all without even knowing it”. I thought it an interesting thing to say and started to fantasize on the idea, pretending it was in fact true. In this dream world, I pretended cells did have brains and they were listening, like a visiting student, in our class. I came to possess a great desire to ask a cell (as if it were so easy to pick one out) what they thought about what we were saying about them. I wanted to know if they would be impressed, or outright embarrassed for us. Yes, there is an incredible amount of proof as to the behavior of the cells within our bodies, but having this perspective, just for a second, made me pretend to be an uneducated fool, and think how much we just may be assuming – how far we were stretching our facts. I guess this doubt in our (referring to the collective human race) knowledge was created through a close correlation of two things: the first thing being (ironically) all the things I had just learned to be true (specifically about how cells form proteins). The second being my provisional acknowledgment of the things only cells know and we do not. As a result of this shifted perspective, I realized the incredible intellect and ignorance that human beings possess. From this, I came to the conclusion that a cell would both be impressed with and ashamed of our knowledge.

So, let me share some of the knowledge that took my breath away, but would probably put a cell to sleep… After covering the basic concept of protein folding (that a protein is a chain of amino acids that essentially fold up on themselves), we zoomed into that chain of amino acids and discovered interactions of energy which significantly affect how proteins fold and the structure at which they eventually arrive. Because these energy interactions happen on the cellular level, everything we learned about the specific behavior of cells brought me back to the idea of personifying a cell. We first discussed the concept of energy minimization (the natural tendency of objects to seek to minimize their energy by sharing it equally with their surrounding environment). Cells are so generous with one another! Although not everyone may be so kind and generous on the outside, always take the compliment that they are still sharing their cellular energy with you and their surroundings! I’ll take it.

This thought, though, was shot down after our professor told us that energy minimalization is connected to a theory about the death of our earth… not so encouraging.

Another concept I could not help but to personify is that of miss-folded proteins. A protein gets miss folded if it arrives at and gets stuck at an energy level higher than its native state (its lowest energy level). A protein gets stuck in this local energy level because it does not possess the excess energy to pop itself out. Thus, it is like someone who has become complacent – one who is content with their position or state of mind yet knows they possess a higher potential they have not yet put forth the energy into accomplishing. But is this necessarily a problem they can control? Is their success entirely up to them or partly determined by their environment?

Since these are quite personal questions, I decided not to ask the cell. So, the conversation ended there.

Taking a step back, this dream world, while quite absurd, allowed me to interact with something I would have otherwise never interacted with. Although not physically there talking with me, this theoretical subject was able to challenge and expand my thoughts without me even knowing it, just as is keeps me alive, just now I have a glimpse of how it does that!

 

 

Aesthetics

Today, we talked about the concept of an aesthetic experience. When I first heard the term, my mind immediately jumped to the visual factor. Given that this is an art-heavy class and Florence is renowned for its visual beauty, this felt like a fair assumption. As the philosophy major in our class explained, however, the feeling we get when looking at a particularly breathtaking view or painting can be generalized to all kinds of situations. This might seem obvious, but in some ways this was a bit of a revelation for me. An aesthetic experience is one where you are speechless, and your mind is overcome by the thing you are beholding. It overtakes all else, and you feel like you are, for just a moment, one with whatever is being observed. It can be something you see, a piece of music you hear, or even a captivating idea.
The three facets of an aesthetic experience are: novelty, complexity, and a challenge to our capacity to understand. Each of these factors is fascinating in its own right.
Novelty means that the thing is new to you, but that does not mean you cannot feel in awe of something even if you’ve seen in 20 times. Maybe you notice something new, or maybe you relate to it in a different way than you did before. In a way, the variability of daily events we experience means that even if you do the same thing over and over, each day it’s a little bit different. Even recalling a memory in a new context can shed new light on an old experience.
Complexity puzzled me. It sounds like it’s saying that the more complex something is, the more aesthetic the experience will be. How can this be if something as simple as an entirely blue canvas can inspire shock and awe (as anyone who has been to a modern art exhibit can observe)? Tomi-Ann explained that complexity works as a bell curve. If something is remarkably complex or remarkably simple and pure, you will be more likely to have an awe inspiring experience.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the challenge to one’s capacity to understand. This, to me, feels the most human. It takes a mind capable of knowing what it does and doesn’t know to consciously be dazzled by the wonderful mysteriousness of an awe-inspiring masterpiece. The Grand Canyon was formed by a river, yes, but it truly feels beyond our ability as humans to fully comprehend the process of canyon carving. The millions and millions of years and gradual change is hard to wrap the mind around. The same can be said of a work of art. To have this aesthetic experience, you must be blown away by the sheer mystery of creation of whatever is being observed.
Lastly, today in class we discussed Stendhal Syndrome. Although questionable in its scientific merits, Stendhal Syndrome is the anecdotal occurrence of feeling positively overwhelmed by something, typically a work of art, to the point of getting dizzy, fainting, or even hallucinating. The symptoms have been reported in places like Jerusalem and Florence, where the rich history, beautiful elements, and wonder of the location combine to overload a person’s ability to experience. Now there are a lot of reasons this might happen, most notably are the stresses of travel and the preexistence of mental health issues, perhaps leaving an individual tourist more vulnerable to this type of “overload.” Regardless, I enjoy thinking about Stendhal Syndrome. I like the idea that an aesthetic experience can be so incredibly powerful that someone simply cannot handle it, and faints. The beauty and the history and the context are just too much, and your brain crashes, like a computer. It’s nice to think that someone is capable of creating an item so astoundingly shocking and remarkably beautiful that tourists collapse at its sight. I don’t know why that idea captivates me so much, but as I said earlier, it feels so viscerally human. It speaks to the innocence I feel one should pursue as a tourist in a new place. To allow one’s self to be so open to the novelty, complexity, and incomprehensibleness that you literally faint is a mindset we should all strive for. I hope that I never stop feeling awed by beautiful paintings, or architecture, or mountain views. There’s just something so lovely about being able to be astounded by beauty.

Scary Excitement of Third Week

Second week has come to a close and third week starts up tomorrow… Scary? Exciting? Both! We are more than half way through the block – we have leaned so much yet still have so much to learn! At this point in any block, you are fully submerged in the material of your course yet haven’t been exposed to what may be the most exciting part of it. You have done what seems to be loads of work and (try to) remain hopeful and excited for all the new material that has yet to come!

 

My first three blocks consisted of my double block FYE Freedom and Authority followed by Intro to Poetry. While both of these were highly reading and writing intensive classes, biophysics has proven to expose my rusty math and science skills. Being thrown back into a way of thinking and problem solving I haven’t practiced in over 6 months has been both terrifying and exhilarating. Though, most of the terror existed only in the first day or two of biophysics and was quickly replaced with excitement.

 

Biophysics, although easily perceived as an advanced science course, has proven to be ideal for both exposing and treating and my rusty math and science skills. The course has no required prerequisites, therefore all the basic physics formulas and concepts are taught as part of the course. Since this is my first blog post and it’s pretty late in the block, I will summarize some of the main topics we have covered thus far here:

 

We have covered many physics tools and have applied them to several different biological problem sets. We started with simple kinematic equations and applied them to both pendulums and projectiles. We explored how a human leg can behave more or less like a simple pendulum and from there we could solve for a persons walking speed based on the same variables. We even compared these findings to what they would be on the moon ! This helped us better understand how specific variables behave within a formula while also providing us with some cool knowledge about what walking ad jumping would be like on the moon! We then transitioned from kinematics to exploring forces and Newton’s three laws. We used forces (along with previous knowledge of kinematics) to calculate heights of jumps and how they varied from problems which involved running and jumping together. After this, we learned about energy – my personal favorite physics concept/tool! We explored many different types of energy and was able to translate them to nearly every concept covered previously. We then moved from learning the biophysics of physical actions one has direct control over and started to explore the physics of fluids and the circulatory system. The circulatory system proved to be extremely fascinating to learn about, not only because it is what literally keeps us alive, but because it is something we are unconscious of in every day life. We learned about density, pressure, flow rate, viscosity, and many more important concepts related to the movement and behavior of fluid. Exploring the incredible complexity of just one system within our body makes all the duties our bodies do for us seem quite magical. This pretty much sums up what we have covered up until Friday.

 

Friday’s class introduced probably the most complex idea we’ve looked at thus far in the class. We had a guest speaker, Phoebe Lostroh (a professor from the molecular biology department), come in and discuss what proteins are, how they are made, their structure, function, and essentially their importance to life of earth. This provided the class with a baseline of knowledge which would then help us to fully understand central dogma and eventually Florence microscopy. We covered many things which are essential to understanding florescence microscopy which I will not bore you with… but its all seriously cool stuff – if you don’t know anything about it, I suggest looking into it!

 

This block started out pretty light while most the physics and applications were review to me. But, fear not, it certainly picked up. This last week especially has proven to challenge me the most. I feel the “challenge” I am referring to is mainly rooted in the conceptual applications and not so much the physics knowledge. As we use different biological applications, we naturally learn things about those specific subjects which may be (and have proven to be this last week to me) completely new. That is what has made this class challenging and interesting at the same time! What could be better than to try to understand how living things work, move, and interact through exploring the physics behind them?!

 

I am looking forward to the last full week of biophysics and will be updating you along the way!

A Giant Leap for Womankind

We’re moving from two dimensions to three this week, from painting to sculpture! During the Renaissance, sculptures were a way to influence public perceptions and identity- a form of political propaganda. The sculpture that I fell most in love with is the Juno Fountain, by Bartolomeo Ammannati. The fountain was commissioned by Cosimo I of the Medici family in 1556. If you haven’t heard of the Medici, (or have heard of them a million times but don’t actually know what they were famous for), here’s a refresher. The Medici family basically invented money and banking. Before the Medici, bartering was the standard of trade, but the Medici realized that one way to make money really fast is to just make the money. The family’s riches gave them power and many Medici served in Florentine government.

Cosimo I was Duke of Florence at the time, and commissioned the fountain when he was able to connect Florence with a new water source. Though the fountain was intended to be the centerpiece of the Great Council Hall, it was never installed there; Cosimo I came into possession of a Michelangelo statue, and replaced the Juno Fountain with it. Newly homeless, the Juno Fountain was moved temporarily the royal gardens, before it’s component parts were (tragically) scattered around the park. It wasn’t until recently that the pieces of the fountain were reassembled at the Bargello Museum in Florence. To quote Peaches and Herb, “Reunited and it feels so good!”

I love this fountain because it so appropriately addresses the achievement it commemorates. The entire fountain is centered around the idea of the water cycle as it was understood by Aristotle. Aristotle believed that water was created from a combination of the elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Fittingly, the characters depicted in this fountain have allegorical significance, with each representing a natural element.

On top of the fountain, sits Juno, protector of the state, with a tambourine in her hand. The clap of her tambourine signifies thunder and lighting, indicating that the gods could strike down any misbehaving mortals. Juno sits atop a stone rainbow, the path of connection between heaven and earth. Beneath the rainbow, lie two bodies of water, personified as a man and a woman. On the left, is Arno, the river that still provides water to the city of Florence. On the right, is Parnassus, the spring that famously arose from  Mt. Helicon, providing poetic inspiration to all who drank from her waters.

Though each of these characters have their charm, the woman in the center of the fountain, Ceres (Roman goddess of Earth and agriculture), is the clear star of the show. Ceres stands with her hands on her breasts, squeezing the fountain water from them. Ironically, fountains that depict a urinating man are very common, yet fountains where women produce water from their breasts are rare. Ceres’ body shape is concave, with her shoulders rounded forward, as she seems to push the water out from within her. Her right cheek is turned to the viewer, an indication of authority and power. With her ocularis and zygomaticus muscles slightly contracted, she appears to be smiling softly, yet knowingly down at us.

Ceres is completely naked, and her body looks more feminine than most Renaissance statues. Because the Catholic Church was still very influential at the time, females were not allowed to pose nude for artists. As a result, early female nudes looked like female heads atop hulking male bodies. Ceres however, is distinctly female, with rounded features and an hourglass shape. Though females nudes existed before the Juno Fountain, women were depicted as sexual objects of the male gaze. In this piece however, Ceres’ comfort with touching her own body, in a totally non-sexual way, implies agency and self-ownership. Her naturalness suggests lack of self-consciousness and a confidence that is striking even in modern day.

Ceres also represents the feminine power to give and sustain life (by giving water in this sculpture, and by giving birth in real life). The idea of female autonomy, much less feminine power, was unheard of in the Renaissance; yet Ceres seems to sidestep cultural norms.This work may seem like a small step for women, but it’s a giant leap for mankind — or should I say womankind. Kudos to you, Ammannati.

Beyond the Face

Ciao!

Artwork in this city is starting to feel much more interconnected than I had realized before.

Quinn’s last blog post described the process of VTS, or Visual Thinking Strategies, which involve slowing down and observing before making judgments or coming to conclusions. I feel that by constantly reminding myself to practice VTS while observing art in our museums, I am beginning to see a bigger picture emerge.

This is the pattern I usually find within the block plan, where the first week feels chaotic and scattered, but by the second week and especially the third, things are coming together in a tangible way. As material from the class and from our individual work and projects come together, the larger themes of the class begin to make sense.

Last week, we were discussing the intricacies of the human facial musculature alongside the evolutionary advantages of various expressions in humans and animals. These seemed like weird concepts to talk about in a class that places so much weight on art, but this week we have been exploring differing methods that renaissance painters and sculptors used to convey emotion. Suddenly, the importance of a facial expression started to seem like it mattered greatly for a work of art. This may seem obvious, but we continued to really ask how emotion can be conveyed, and it appears more nuanced than I first thought. Yes, the face is important in paintings, but emotion is so much more than that.

To demonstrate this idea, we played a little game in class. In the first round, somebody would get up in front of the class and, using just their face, try to convey a complex emotion, such as awe or guilt. Everyone wrote down a guess, and the next person went up. In the second round, the same “actor” was allowed to use their whole bodies and some simple motions, then everybody guessed again. In almost every single case, people got the emotion wrong in the first round and right in the second. An emotional expression goes so far beyond just the face.

Additionally, the face might be quite misleading. Furrowed brows, a wrinkled nose, and an open mouth could be a face of extreme excitement and celebration or burning anger, depending on the context. Combining salient, “real-world” examples like the game from class with the strategies of VTS has given me a much deeper appreciation for what is going on in any given painting or sculpture. Yes, the man is sad, but how do you know that? Is it the tear on his face? Is it his body language, showing him crumple in despair? Is it due to what the people around him are doing to him? It is all these things, and simply stopping artistic analysis at “the man is sad” limits not only our understanding of what is really going on in the depicted scene, but also our appreciation for the depth of the art and the immense talent of the artist.

To be an artist is to truly understand human expressions in a way that most people cannot even articulate. It is to understand the human form in a very “meta” way, and to be able to move past something as simple as a facial expression.