Works in Progress

By Michael Blumfield

A glimpse at ongoing faculty research

photo of Nuruosmaniye mosque

“Reading” Buildings as Documents

For six centuries, the Ottoman Empire was a major geopolitical power, straddling portions of Africa, Asia, and Europe. And for most of that time, the empire was at war with its rivals.

Following a military victory in Belgrade in 1739, the Ottomans enjoyed a prolonged peace with the West. Commemorating the event by building a structure deemed the Nuruosmaniye Mosque, the victors appropriated some of the aesthetics of their foes. The name given to that architectural style: Ottoman Baroque.

The commentators who coined the term meant it disparagingly—suggesting that it was a foreign style imposed on a weakened empire. Modern-day scholars have avoided the label, sensitive to the political commentary it encapsulated.

But Ünver Rüstem, an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art, who specializes in Islamic art and architecture, says it is time to embrace the term Ottoman Baroque for what it was—a cross-cultural borrowing of aesthetics no less worthy than any comparable adaptations by Western artists. In fact, he says, the style was a “political statement of the Ottoman wherewithal, authority, and reach.”

The topic of his doctoral thesis, Ottoman Baroque, is the subject of a new book Rüstem has written, expected to be published in early 2019.

The Baroque movement itself hasn’t fared well from a modern-day perspective. Its ornate, complex style seems cluttered and superfluous when juxtaposed against the simple, efficient lines of the mid-20th century and beyond. But the style’s details—extensive references to natural objects such as shells and leaves, as well as rounded and undulating arches—were much admired in many regions of the world where the Baroque took hold and was lavishly implemented in the Nuruosmaniye Mosque and subsequent buildings.

While the Ottomans were accomplished builders, they weren’t big on explaining their work. No records of significance detail what exactly they had in mind when switching from the more sober architecture of previous centuries to the Baroque style. So Rüstem has had to do a lot of extrapolation based on what can be observed.

“I’m looking at the buildings themselves as documents,” he says. Their structures and surfaces “are a visual representation of a much larger shift in the empire.”

He’s made annual visits to Istanbul to do his research, but not without challenges. He arranged to spend an academic year in Istanbul, only to learn that the Nuruosmaniye Mosque was to be closed for repairs for the duration of his visit. In subsequent trips he returned to the mosque, hoping to learn as much as possible.

A Deep Dive into American Democracy

In 2015, Robert Lieberman, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in political science, was sitting on a panel at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting when an attendee stood up and asked: “Have any of you ever considered the possibility of a regime change in the United States?” Lieberman and his colleagues on the panel were at a loss. They hadn’t examined under what conditions democracy in the United States might falter. “We all kind of looked at our shoes,” he says.

But after witnessing the outcome and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Lieberman has been much more aware of potential cracks in the foundation of U.S. democracy. “It’s not that we’re predicting that American democracy is in mortal peril, but some of the basic tenets of a liberal democracy that we all take for granted, like separation of powers, a free press, the validity of elections, are all of a sudden under some challenge,” he says.

In the months since the election, Lieberman and several colleagues in political science at Swarthmore College and Cornell University have been examining the causes—and consequences—of what Lieberman dubs “Trumpism,” both in this country and in similar populist movements abroad. The result is the American Democracy in Historical and Comparative Perspective project, which the academics hope to use as a basis for a series of public discussions to be held in Washington, D.C., in the coming months.

Lieberman says the idea is not to attack President Donald Trump, but to try to understand how the rise in anti-immigration, anti-globalism, and economic inequality have fueled the populist movement, and whether it’s potentially a lasting trend.

“The question is, what is it about this particular configuration of circumstances that made it possible for a candidate like Trump to win, and, number two, why does it seem like this episode of anti-liberalism is more threatening than other episodes in the past?”

Lieberman compares the current environment in some ways to the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when economic transformation reorganized the structure of society. That, he says, led to a generation or more of redefining political norms. Could we be living in a similar situation today?

Lieberman and his colleagues hope their project generates a healthy discussion, and ultimately, a better understanding of geopolitical conditions reshaping the world. “American democracy is a very resilient system,” he says.

The Weather in Space

While scientists have gained a decent understanding of the atmospheres surrounding other planets in our solar system—including chemical composition, density, and prevalence of clouds, haze, and dust—they know little about the billions of other planets scattered across the universe. (Yes, billions. The Kepler Space Telescope convinced astronomers in 2014 than there are more planets than stars in the universe.)

Given that the closest of such bodies (called exoplanets) are a couple of light years away, satellite reconnaissance is out of the question. To fill in the gaps, we have places such as Assistant Professor Sarah Hörst’s research lab in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Hörst simulates atmospheric chemistry in her lab. “We take a 2-liter container, fill it with the gas mixture that would be found on a given planet, adjust the temperature, then zap it with an energy source, such as a lamp that produces ultraviolet photons,” she says. (The energy source affects the elements inside the container much as a nearby star would.)

“What results is an idea of what such an atmosphere would look like—from thin and clear to thick and opaque.”

Cumulatively, she’s essentially compiling a database of atmospheric outcomes. Such information is helpful in the short term for astronomers who want an idea of whether a given exoplanet is worth focusing on—literally. An impenetrably hazy atmosphere would be more limiting in learning about the exoplanet’s features than one with a clear one.

While the planets in our solar system have dramatically different atmospheres than the Earth (clouds made up of methane, ammonia, or nitrogen, for example), our neighbors can tell us only a fraction of the story about atmospheric properties.

“They emerged in the same conditions as each other, and so they represent a very limited set of information on how planets can form,” Hörst says. “We have a theoretical framework for atmospheric formation, but we haven’t been able to test it previously.”

The looming question over the properties of other planets, of course, is whether they could sustain life.