What Does the Spleen Do? A Music Video Starring Harvard School of Medicine’s Class of 2016

According to Harvard Medical School’s Admissions department, "to study medicine at Harvard is to prepare to play a leading role" in the "quest to improve the human condition."

It might also prepare you to play a giant spleen, as Richard Ngo, Class of 2016, does in this video for the Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine's 107th Annual Second Year Show. 

In this anatomical homage to  "The Fox," Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis' deliberately bizarre hit, the Crimsonites demonstrate a pretty straightforward grasp of their studies:

Lungs go whoosh

Help you breathe

Kidneys filter

Make your pee

If, as they freely admit,  they're a bit murky on splenetic function, well, that's why they're at the top ranked medical school in the country, right? To learn?

And to dance?

Their parents, particularly the hard working immigrant ones, must have been so relieved to learn that music videos are a fallback should the doctor thing not work out.

Though why wouldn't it? Secret male uterus? Vestigial fin? Possibly a backup tongue?

They may be guesses, but they're educated guesses!

For comparison's sake, here are two of the winning entries in the Medical and Dental School's Organ Challenge, an anatomy-based music video contest for kids K-12Oakland's Pacific Boychoir Academy’s Miley Cyrus-inspired take on the Digestive System (above) and Poolesville, Maryland's local high school's  "Happy”-flavored anthem to healthy cardiac function (below).

I'd say those kids stand a good chance of getting into Harvard.

(Don't be embarrassed if you remain a bit shaky on what exactly the spleen's there to do. This simple, non-musical primer on the "Queen of Clean," compliments of I Heart Guts, should clear things up right away.


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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler and the Chief Primatologist of The East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Steven Pinker Uses Theories from Evolutionary Biology to Explain Why Academic Writing is So Bad

I don’t know about other disciplines, but academic writing in the humanities has become notorious for its jargon-laden wordiness, tangled constructions, and seemingly deliberate vagary and obscurity. A popular demonstration of this comes via the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator, which allows one to plug in a number of stock phrases, verbs, and “-tion” words to produce corkers like “The reification of post-capitalist hegemony is always already participating in the engendering of print culture” or “The discourse of the gaze gestures toward the linguistic construction of the gendered body"---the point, of course, being that the language of academia has become so meaningless that randomly generated sentences closely resemble and make as much sense as those pulled from the average journal article (a point well made by the so-called “Sokal hoax”).

There are many theories as to why this is so. Some say it’s several generations of scholars poorly imitating famously difficult writers like Hegel and Heidegger, Lacan and Derrida; others blame a host of postmodern -isms, with their politicized language games and sectarian schisms. A recent discussion cited scholarly vanity as the cause of incomprehensible academic prose. A more practical explanation holds that the publish or perish grind forces scholars to turn out derivative work at an unreasonable pace simply to keep their jobs, hence stuffing journals with rehashed arguments and fancy-sounding puffery that signifies little. In the above video, Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker offers his own theory, working with examples drawn from academic writing in psychology.

For Pinker, the tendency of academics to use “passives, abstractions, and ‘zombie nouns’” stems not primarily from “nefarious motives” or the desire to “sound sophisticated and recherché and try to bamboozle their readers with high-falutin’ verbiage.” He doesn’t deny that this takes place on occasion, but contra George Orwell’s claim in “Politics and the English Language” that bad writing generally hopes to disguise bad political and economic motives, Pinker defers to evolutionary biology, and refers to “mental habits” and the “mismatch between ordinary thinking and speaking and what we have to do as academics.” He goes on to explain, in some fairly academic terms, his theory of how our primate mind, which did not evolve to think thoughts about sociology or literary criticism, struggles to schematize “learned abstractions” that are not a part of everyday experience. It’s a plausible theory that doesn’t rule out other reasonable alternatives (like the perfectly straightforward claim that clear, concise writing poses a formidable challenge for academics as much as anyone else.)

Pinker’s talk was part of a larger Harvard conference called “Stylish Academic Writing” and sponsored by the Office of Faculty Development & Diversity. The full conference seems designed primarily as professional development for other academics, but layfolks may find much here of interest as well. See more talks from the conference, as well as a number of unrelated videos on good academic writing here. Or, for more amusement at the expense of clunky academic prose, see the results of the Philosophy and Literature bad writing contest, which ran from 1995-98 and turned up some almost shockingly unreadable sentences from a variety of scholarly texts.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Science & Cooking: Harvard’s Free Course on Making Cakes, Paella & Other Delicious Food

I can hardly think of a more appealing nexus of the sciences, for most of us and for obvious (and delicious) reasons, than food. Add a kind of engineering to the mix, and you get the study of cooking. Back in 2012, we featured the first few lectures from Harvard University's course Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft MatterTheir collection of rigorous and entertaining presentations of that which we love to prepare and, even more so, to eat has since expanded to include one- to two-hour lectures delivered by sharp professors in cooperation with respected chefs and other food luminaries on culinary subjects like the science of sweets (featuring Flour Bakery's Joanne Chang), how to do cutting-edge modernist cuisine at home (featuring Nathan Myhrvold, who wrote an enormous book on it), and the relevance of microbes, misos, and olives (featuring David Chang of Momofuku fame). You can watch all of the lectures, in order, with the playlist embedded at the top of this post.

Alternatively, you can pick and choose from the complete list of Harvard's Science and Cooking lectures on Youtube or on iTunes. Some get deep into the natural workings of specific dishes, ingredients and preparation methods; others, like "The Science of Good Cooking" with a couple of editors from Cook's Illustrated, take a broader view. That lecture and others will certainly help build an intellectual framework for those of us who want to improve our cooking — and even those of us who can already cook decently, or at least reliably follow a recipe — but can't quite attain the next level without understanding exactly what happens when we flick on the heat. One school of thought holds that, to come off as reasonably skilled in the kitchen, you need only master one or two showcase meals. When asked to cook something, I, for instance, have tended to make paella almost every time, almost out of sheer habit. But now that I've found Raül Balam Ruscalleda's talk on the science of that traditional Spanish dish, I can see that I must now, on several levels, raise my game. View it below, and feel free to take notes alongside me. You can find Science and Cooking in our collection of 900 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Harvard’s Free Computer Science Course Teaches You to Code in 12 Weeks

At the beginning of last year, we wrote about CS50, Harvard’s Introductory Computer Science course, taught by Professor David Malan. Today, we bring you the updated version of the class, filmed throughout the past semester at Harvard. Why revisit an updated version of the same class a year later? For one thing, the material has been updated. And, as you can tell by the rousing reception Malan receives from the audience at the start of the first lecture (above), Malan is kind of a big deal. From his opening boom of “This is CS50,” Malan immediately comes off as an unusually charismatic professor. He offers what might just be the most engaging online class you've ever seen.

So what does this charismatic computer scientist cover over three months? An impressively large amount of information about coding. Malan builds the course from the ground up, and begins by describing how transistors are employed to transmit information within computers. From then on, he outlines a vast amount of computer science in highly accessible language. This will almost undoubtedly be the clearest presentation of topics like “command-line arguments,” “cryptography,” and “dynamic memory allocation” that you're likely to hear.

The class videos are available on iTunesU, YouTube, and in audio, 1080p HD video, and text transcript form on a crisp course website. The course may also be accessed through edX, Harvard and MIT's MOOC platform, which allows users to receive a certificate upon completion. It’s easy to tell that Malan and his team have gone above and beyond the requirements of creating a helpful introduction to computer science. They deliver an astoundingly easy-to-grasp primer on a daunting topic.

For other CompSci classes taught by David Malan, check out our list of Free Computer Science courses, part of our larger list, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman, or read more of his writing at the Huffington Post.

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Watch Six TED-Style Lectures from Top Harvard Profs Presented at Harvard Thinks Big 5

Harvard has a few propositions it would like you consider. Take, for example, the one expounded on above by Robert Lue, whose titles include Professor of the Practice of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and the faculty director of HarvardX. As an Open Culture reader, you might have some experience with that last institution---or, rather, digital institution---which releases Harvard-caliber learning opportunities free in the form of Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs). You'll find some of them on our very own regularly-updated collection of MOOCs from great universities. Perhaps you haven't enjoyed taking one, but you may well do it soon. What, though, does their increasing popularity mean for universities, one of the oldest of the traditional industries we so often speak of the internet "disrupting"? Lue, who offers eight and a half minutes of the choicest words on the subject, would like you to consider the MOOC's moment not one of disruption for the university, but one of "inflection, and ultimately a moment of potential transformation."

Lue's argument comes laid out in one of the six brief but sharp lectures from Harvard Thinks Big 5, the latest round of the famed university's series of TED-style talks where "a collection of all-star professors each speak for ten minutes about something they are passionate about." Jeffrey MironSenior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has a passion for drug legalization. In his talk just above, Miron tells us why we should reconsider our assumptions about the benefits of any kind of drug prohibition — or at least, the benefits we just seem to assume it brings. And as we rethink our positions on the role of government in drug use and technology in the university, why not also rethink the role of large news organizations — and large organizations of any kind — in our lives? Below, Nicco Mele, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School, explains why all kinds of power, from manufacturing sandals all the way up to gathering news, has and will continue to devolve from institutions to individuals.

The rest of the Harvard Thinks Big 5 lineup includes Senior Lecturer on Education Katherine K. Merseth advocating careers in teaching,  Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Jeff Lichtman advocating "changing the wiring in your brain," and African American Studies professor and Hiphop Archive at Harvard University founding director Marcyliena Morgan advocating a richer study of what grown-ups used to call, with a groan, "rap music." You can read more about the talks and the professors giving them at the Crimson, before watching and deciding whether to agree with them, disagree with them, or simply consider — in other words, to think. The videos are also available on iTunesU.

Katherine K. Merseth

Jeff Lichtman

Marcyliena Morgan

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Herbie Hancock Presents the Prestigious Norton Lectures at Harvard University: Watch Online

There may be no more distinguished lecture series in the arts than Harvard’s Norton lectures, named for celebrated professor, president, and editor of the Harvard Classics, Charles Eliot Norton. Since 1925, the Norton Professorship in Poetry—taken broadly to mean “poetic expression in language, music, or fine arts”—has gone to one respected artist per year, who then delivers a series of six talks during their tenure. We’ve previously featured Norton lectures from 1967-68 by Jorge Luis Borges and 1972-73 by Leonard Bernstein. Today we bring you the first three lectures from this year’s Norton Professor of Poetry, Herbie Hancock. Hancock delivers his fifth lecture today (perhaps even as you read this) and his sixth and final on Monday, March 31. The glories of Youtube mean we don’t have to wait around for transcript publication or DVDs, though perhaps they're on the way as well.

The choice of Herbie Hancock as this year’s Norton Professor of Poetry seems an overdue affirmation of one of the country’s greatest artistic innovators of its most unique of cultural forms. The first jazz composer and musician—and the first African American—to hold the professorship, Hancock brings an eclectic perspective to the post. His topic: "The Ethics of Jazz." Given his emergence on the world stage as part of Miles Davis’ 1964-68 Second Great Quartet, his first lecture (top) is aptly titled “The Wisdom of Miles Davis.” Given his swerve into jazz fusion, synth-jazz and electro in the 70s and 80s, following Davis’ Bitches Brew revolution, his second (below) is called “Breaking the Rules.”

Notoriously wordy cultural critic Homi Bhabha, a Norton committee member, introduces Hancock in the first lecture. If you’d rather skip his speech, Hancock begins at 9:10 with his own introduction of himself, as a “musician, spouse, father, teacher, friend, Buddhist, American, World Citizen, Peace Advocate, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz” and, centrally, “a human being.” Hancock’s mention of his global peace advocacy is significant, given the subject of his third talk, “Cultural Diplomacy and the Voice of Freedom” (below). His mention of the role of teacher is timely, since he joined UCLA’s music department as a professor in jazz last year (along with fellow Davis Quintet alumnus Wayne Shorter). Always an early adopter, pushing music in new directions, Hancock calls his fourth talk “Innovation and New Technologies” (who can forget his embrace of the keytar?). His identity as a Buddhist is central to his talk today, “Buddhism and Creativity,” and his final talk is enigmatically titled “Once Upon a Time….” Find all of the lectures on this page.

Hancock’s last identification in his intro---“human being”---“may seem obvious,” he says, but it’s “all-encompassing.” He invokes his own multiple identities to begin a discussion on the “one-dimensional” self-presentations we’re each encouraged to adopt—defining ourselves in one or two restrictive ways and not “being open to the myriad opportunities that are available on the other side of the fortress.” Hancock, a warm, friendly communicator and a proponent of “multidimensional thinking,” frames his “ethics of jazz” as spilling over the fortress walls of his identity as a musician and becoming part of his broadly humanist views on universal problems of violence, apathy, cruelty, and environmental degradation. He calls each of his lectures a “set,” and his first two are carefully prepared talks in which his life in jazz provides a backdrop for his wide-ranging philosophy. So far, there’s nary a keytar in sight.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Harvard Presents Two Free Online Courses on the Old Testament


A quick note: Shaye J.D. Cohen, a professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard, has just released his second free course on iTunes. The first course was called The Hebrew Scriptures in Judaism & Christianity. The new one, simply titled The Hebrew Bible, "surveys the major books and ideas of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Old Testament) examining the historical context in which the texts emerged and were redacted. A major subtext of the course is the distinction between how the Bible was read by ancient interpreters (whose interpretations became the basis for many iconic literary and artistic works of Western Civilization) and how it is approached by modern bible scholarship." The new course, featuring 25 sets of video lectures and lecture notes, has been added to our collection of Free Online Religion Courses, a subsection of our collection of 1,300 Free Online Courses. Other related courses worth exploring are Introduction to the Old Testament and Introduction to New Testament History and Literature, both from Yale.

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