Seven men and two women received honorary degrees at this morning’s 355th Commencement Exercises. Biographical sketches of the honorands appear below.
Sir Michael Atiyah
Doctor of Science
Across more than four decades, Sir Michael Francis Atiyah has solidified a reputation as a mathematical giant whose work has enhanced fields such as geometry, topology, and theoretical physics (in areas such as superspace, supergravity, and string theory).
Colleagues recognize Atiyah as the co-developer (with France’s Alexandre Grothendieck and Germany’s Friedrich Hirzebruch) of topological K-theory and (with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Isadore M. Singer) of the Atiyah-Singer index theorem. By 1966, such work brought him the Fields Medal, given every four years by the International Mathematical Union to exceptional mathematicians under age 40. While a Nobel Prize does not exist for mathematics, the Fields Medal is generally considered its equivalent.
For their index theorem, Atiyah and Singer won the 2004 Abel Prize of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The academy hailed the winners for “repairing a rift between the worlds of pure mathematics and theoretical particle physics, initiating a cross-fertilization, which has been one of the most exciting developments of the last decades.”
Born in London on April 22, 1929, to a Lebanese father and a Scottish mother, Atiyah grew up in Khartoum, Sudan. He earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at Cambridge University’s Trinity College. He has taught at Oxford and Cambridge (where he became master of Trinity and a prime mover in establishing the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, where he served as first director). Fully retired since 1997, Sir Michael is now an honorary professor at the University of Edinburgh.
Elizabeth H. Blackburn
Doctor of Science
Over the past two decades, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn has emerged as a leader in the quest to elucidate the function of telomeres, the short sections of DNA at the ends of the chromosomes in cell nuclei that help maintain the integrity of genetic information as cells reproduce through normal division (mitosis). Blackburn compares telomeres to the reinforced tips that keep shoelaces from fraying. In 1985, she discovered the enzyme telomerase, which restores parts of telomeres that get clipped off during mitosis.
As Blackburn explained in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. interview, “[Telomerase] saves the chromosome’s bacon. It’s not elegant or clever. In fact it’s kind of clumsy. But it works and has done so for billions of years for every creature, apart from bacteria.” This discovery has stimulated ongoing studies of major questions such as the nature of cellular aging (possibly related to insufficient telomerase, causing cells to die without being replaced) and the development of cancerous cells (possibly linked to excessive telomerase, producing uncontrolled cell division). Learning to manipulate telomerase thus holds the promise of renewing aging tissues and combating cancer.
Blackburn’s interest in science came as naturally as breathing. Born to physician parents on Nov. 26, 1948, in Hobart, Tasmania, she displayed a keen interest in the natural world as a child. Nonetheless, her parents and other physician relatives took a dim view of her decision to study biochemistry instead of medicine at the University of Melbourne, where she earned her B.Sc. (1970) and M.Sc. (1972). In 1975, she completed doctoral studies in molecular biology with Frederick Sanger at Cambridge University, followed by postdoctoral work at Yale (1975-77).
Since 1978, Blackburn and her husband John Sedat (also a molecular biologist) have lived in California, where she is now the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. As president of the American Society for Cell Biology in 1998, Blackburn strove to enhance relationships between young investigators and seasoned scientists, and to expand opportunities for women and minorities. Her work has earned numerous accolades, including five honorary degrees, the Australia Prize (1998), the California Scientist of the Year award (1999), the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (2000), and the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine (2004).
Philip E. Converse
Doctor of Laws
Four days after receiving a 1950 master’s degree in English literature at the University of Iowa, Philip Converse received “Greetings from the President of the United States.” He had just been drafted at the start of the Korean War. He didn’t travel far, though, and wound up editing a newspaper for an Army hospital in Battle Creek, Mich. While devouring tomes of world history in his spare time, he had an inspired idea: to pursue a doctorate in the social sciences after the war.
He did just that, completing a second M.A. (1956) and a Ph.D. (1958) in social psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. By then, he was already immersed in what became known as the National Election Study series of the Survey Research Center at Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (which he eventually directed from 1986 to 1989). Before long, Converse began making a name for himself for his penetrating insights into U.S. voting behavior.
Converse joined the Michigan faculty as assistant professor of sociology in 1960. In the same year, Converse and Angus Campbell, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes published “The American Voter,” a touchstone of election studies ever since. Converse later branched out with studies of topics such as “The Human Meaning of Social Change” (with Campbell, 1972) and “The Quality of American Life: Perceptions, Evaluations, and Satisfactions” (with Campbell and Willard L. Rodgers, 1976). He has also analyzed voting in Brazil, Canada, France, and several nations behind the Iron Curtain.
In 1989, Converse left Michigan as the Robert C. Angell Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Political Science to spend five years directing the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, an independent research institution in Stanford, Calif.
Retired since 1994, this bird-lover from Concord, N.H., has enjoyed natural-history trips to Africa, Australia, Costa Rica, and the Galpagos Islands. Converse continues to write and soon hopes to offer his views on the current American political scene in a book tentatively called “The GOP Gone South.” He is also planning a brief statistical examination of competition in team sports. As he recently confessed, “I am still having fun, following my own nose.” Converse turns 78 on Nov. 17.
Philippe de Montebello
Doctor of Arts
In the 136-year history of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello has carved out a distinctive place as the eighth director of the world’s most comprehensive treasury of human achievement – a dazzling assemblage of more than 2 million works spanning five millennia. During a tenure of unprecedented length that now approaches 29 years, de Montebello has served as an eloquent voice for the fine arts and has worked to expand and refurbish the Metropolitan’s physical resources, oversee collections in the 17 curatorial departments, support educational programs, and enhance public access. Each year, more than 5 million visitors draw inspiration from the vision and effort through which de Montebello, some 1,800 employees, and 900 volunteers maintain the Metropolitan as a cultural standard-bearer of global pre-eminence.
Recently, de Montebello has favored a policy of displaying collections rather than increasing them. Among the fruits of this emphasis are the redesign and reinstallation of the Tiepolo Gallery and the Egyptian Collection, as well as new galleries for the art of South and Southeast Asia, Korea, and China. Work continues on the expansion and renovation of the Greek and Roman Galleries, with several sections planned for reopening next year. Other plans call for the renovation and reinstallation of the Galleries for Islamic Art, reinstallation of the Oceanic Galleries, and expanded space for 19th century painting and photography, along with restoration of the Fifth Avenue faade.
Guy-Philippe Lannes de Montebello was born in Paris on May 16, 1936, already embedded in a past as colorful as any historical painting. The Italian family name comes from Napoleon, who in 1808 dubbed Jean Lannes “duc de Montebello” in honor of his pivotal role in the Battle of Montebello (June 9, 1800). On his mother’s side, de Montebello is related to the Marquis de Sade. De Montebello’s sensitivity to the fine arts partly reflects his own early talent for painting.
De Montebello became a U.S. citizen in 1955. After interrupting college art history studies to join the U.S. Army, he graduated from Harvard College in 1961, having devoted his senior honors thesis to Delacroix. In 1961-62, he studied as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. He joined the Metropolitan as a curatorial assistant in 1963 and became associate curator of European Paintings before leaving to direct Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts from 1969 to 1974. He then returned to the Metropolitan. De Montebello became a Chevalier de la Lgion d’Honneur in 1991 and received the (U.S.) National Medal of Arts in 2003.
Shirley Ann Jackson
Doctor of Laws
Quite literally, the buzz about physicist Shirley Ann Jackson began in her own backyard in Washington, D.C., where she was born on Aug. 5, 1946. There, under the porch, she kept about 30 jars of bumblebees. By observing and performing small experiments on this little menagerie, Jackson took some of her first steps on the road to a remarkable scientific career that led her to the presidency of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.) in 1999.
After graduating at the top of her high school class in 1964, Jackson entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where elementary-particle physics soon lured her away from biology. She co-founded the MIT Black Student Union and worked successfully for the admission of more black students. After finishing undergraduate work in 1968, she remained to earn a Ph.D. in 1973. In so doing, she simultaneously became the nation’s first black woman to earn a doctorate in physics and MIT’s first black woman to earn a doctorate in any field.
During the next few decades, Jackson performed research at some of the world’s leading centers for advanced physics: the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago (1973-74); the European Center for Nuclear Research near Geneva (CERN; 1974-75); the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park, Calif. (1976); and Colorado’s Aspen Center for Physics (1976-77). In 1976, she began 15 years of research into condensed matter and optical physics at Bell Laboratories. She became a physics professor at Rutgers in 1991.
By 1995, Jackson’s achievements had marked her as a strong candidate to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which then boasted a budget of some $473 million and a staff of roughly 3,000. The U.S. Senate promptly confirmed her in March 1995. When sworn in on May 2, she became the first woman and the first black person to chair the agency. Four years later, Jackson was unanimously elected to serve as Rensselaer’s 18th president, making her the first black woman to head a major U.S. research university. More than 30 institutions have celebrated her achievements with honorary degrees.
“My goal was always to pursue the physics opportunities and however great or non-great I might turn out to be, I thought it was important to be in an exciting place, to work on exciting problems,” Jackson explained to Rushworth Kidder (Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 20, 1989). “What science gives you is the chance to be the one who uncovers the unknown, who creates the new paradigm.”
Doctor of Laws
As a young boy, Jim Lehrer expected to grow up and work for his father’s independent bus company. But after reading reports and columns from World War II journalists like Ernie Pyle and Robert Ruark, Lehrer realized that words could take him far beyond any bus out of his native Wichita, Kan. “Boy, that’s what I wanted to be,” he declared in an interview with Van Wallach (Continental magazine, May 1986).
And a journalist he soon began to be. Spotting promise in an essay on Dickens, a high school English teacher in Texas (where the family moved in 1948) encouraged Lehrer to write for the school newspaper. By 1956, he had earned a B.A. in journalism at the University of Missouri. During the next three years, Lehrer served as a U.S. Marine in Okinawa and also oversaw publication of The Boot, the newspaper of the Marines’ Parris Island training camp.
Not until 1972 – after jobs in Dallas broadcast and print journalism – did Lehrer make a fateful move to Washington, D.C. While working there in 1973 at PBS station WETA-TV, he met Canadian broadcast journalist Robert MacNeil. They soon teamed up for live, complete coverage of the Watergate hearings in the U.S. Senate. On both sides of the camera, the convergence proved historic: The duo’s Emmy Award-winning reportage eventually opened the door to a regular PBS news show, which debuted as “The Robert MacNeil Report” in October 1975 (renamed “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” in 1976). The show currently appears as “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” (MacNeil left during the 1995-96 season).
Lehrer’s journalistic excellence has brought honors such as the National Humanities Medal (1999), induction (with MacNeil) into the Television Hall of Fame (1999), two Emmys, and a George Foster Peabody Broadcast Award. Since 1988, Lehrer has also moderated 10 nationally televised presidential debates.
While Lehrer’s name instantly conjures up the best in broadcast journalism, his storytelling gifts have found a more expansive outlet in 15 novels, with a 16th (“The Phony Marine”) due out in November. He has also written two memoirs and three plays. Lehrer turned 72 on May 19. He will deliver the principal Commencement Address during today’s Afternoon Exercises.
Robert P. Moses
Doctor of Science
Sometimes, the equations of life combine seemingly disparate factors in the most surprising ways. How, for instance, can courageous Civil Rights activism have anything to do with the creation of a radically new and successful way of teaching algebra? One need search no farther than Cambridge to find the living answer in Robert P. (Bob) Moses.
The consistent animating principle for this activist-educator has been a dedication to helping the poor and underprivileged learn to help themselves. As field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC [“snick”]) and director of SNCC’s Mississippi Project during the 1960s, Moses helped register black voters in the nation’s poorest state at a time when such efforts could – and sometimes did – spell death. Despite being shot at and harassed as local authorities did nothing to protect them, Moses and his associates played a major role in awakening the nation to racial injustice and doing something about it. In 1964, Moses helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Although MFDP delegates failed to win the official recognition they sought, a national television audience heard MFDP co-founder Fannie Lou Hamer speak eloquently about the plight of Southern blacks.
Moses found new applications for these experiences in 1982, when he discovered that the Cambridge school of his eldest daughter offered no algebra classes. By then an experienced mathematics teacher himself, Moses dropped his Harvard doctoral studies in the philosophy of mathematics and began developing the Algebra Project. Drawing on lessons of empowerment, organization, and ingenuity from Civil Rights days and combining them with insights from the work of figures like Dewey, Kolb, Lewin, Piaget, and Quine, Moses came up with a way of teaching algebraic principles based on real-life experiences and everyday language. The result? A dramatic increase in mathematical literacy among children not normally expected to develop math skills beyond basic arithmetic – and the expansion of life opportunities that such literacy brings in today’s technological society.
Born in Harlem on Jan. 23, 1935, Moses has described his extraordinary journey in “Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights” (with Charles E. Cobb Jr., 2001). He holds a 1956 B.A. from Hamilton College and a 1957 A.M. (philosophy) from Harvard. In 1982, Moses won a MacArthur Foundation grant. In addition to winning support from the National Science Foundation and more than a dozen private groups, Moses and the Algebra Project have been crowned by honors such as the 2004 McGraw-Hill Prize in Education and the 2002 James Bryant Conant Award of the Education Commission of the States.
Norman F. Ramsey
Doctor of Science
Physicist Norman F. Ramsey is a stickler for details – but not just any old details, mind you. During a long and productive career, he has developed novel ways of observing and measuring molecular, atomic, and subatomic events with previously undreamt-of precision.
If, for instance, you really want to know what time it is, today’s most advanced cesium clocks – practical offspring of a major Ramsey innovation – will supply the answer with an error of about 1 second in 20 million years. Cesium clocks, which base the second on the oscillations of a cesium atom, have served as the world’s official timekeepers since 1967, when they dethroned the traditional but highly variable second derived from Earth’s wobbly dance around the Sun. Such clocks are the very heartbeat of today’s science and technology, pulsing through activities as varied as manufacturing, financial transactions, navigation (on Earth and off), laboratory experiments, telecommunications, and electric-power distribution.
In 1989, Ramsey shared the Nobel Prize in physics for developing the separated oscillatory field method (for inducing shifts in atomic energy levels) on which these clocks rely. He has also made major contributions to radar technology and the understanding of thermodynamics, magnetic resonance, nuclear forces, and many other subjects. Over the years, Ramsey has lent his expertise to organizations such as the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Air Force, and NATO. He has published five books and written or co-written more than 300 scientific papers.
Educated on both sides of the Atlantic at Columbia and Cambridge universities, Ramsey joined the Harvard faculty in 1947. Shortly after World War II, he helped establish the Brookhaven National Laboratory for Nuclear Research (Long Island, N.Y.) and served as the first chair of its Physics Department in 1946-47. In 1949, he helped develop and operate Harvard’s first postwar cyclotron. In 1960, Ramsey, graduate student Harold M. Goldenberg, and Research Fellow Daniel Kleppner introduced the atomic hydrogen maser, an atomic clock still widely used.
Ramsey became the Higgins Professor of Physics in 1966. Although he retired in 1986, he has remained an active researcher. A native of Washington, D.C., he turns 91 on Aug. 27.
Doctor of Arts
In the March 1972 issue of Artforum, Leo Steinberg offered his “Reflections on the State of Art Criticism,” taking aim at the rigid formalist outlook of Clement Greenberg, chief arbiter of all things artistic from coast to coast. Arguing for broader views that embraced the history, formal analysis, and emotional impact of works of art, Steinberg’s essay launched a revolution that continues to shape critical perspectives.
“He never intended his multifaceted analysis to be set up as the one and only, the pluralism to end all pluralisms,” writes art historian Katy Siegel in a 30th-anniversary appreciation (Artforum, March 2002). “In fact Steinberg never ruled out formalist concerns, just critics who insisted only on formalist concerns.” Siegel credits Steinberg as the first critic to use “post-modernist” to describe contemporary art that favors often-ironic quotation from art’s eclectic visual heritage over imagery drawn directly from nature.
Aided by a palette of sympathies ranging from the Renaissance to modern times, Steinberg grounds himself in the living dynamics of attentive vision. His 1995-96 Norton Lectures at Harvard, for instance, probed “The Mute Image and the Meddling Text,” demonstrating how hallowed, authoritative words often blind us to plainly visible details in thrice-familiar works of art.
Born in Moscow on July 9, 1920, Steinberg grew up in Berlin and studied at the University of London’s Slade School of Fine Art (1936-40). In 1945, he moved to New York, where he taught life drawing at the Parsons School of Design and earned a 1960 Ph.D. at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Over the course of four decades, he collected 3,200 prints now housed at the Blanton Museum of Art (University of Texas, Austin). The Leo Steinberg Collection is remarkable for combining images from familiar masters with little-known works and artists. From 1975 until retirement in 1991, Steinberg served as the University of Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin Professor of the History of Art. In 1986, he received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
Steinberg’s books include “Other Criteria” (1972), “Michelangelo’s Last Paintings” (1975), “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion” (1983; rev. 1996), and “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper” (2001). In 1983, Steinberg became the first art historian to receive the Award in Literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. As Siegel notes, “To this day, the way he writes, his sense of play and pleasure, remains unmatched.”