Campus & Community

GSAS awards medal to four for service, scholarship

8 min read

For 20 years now, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) has awarded its Centennial Medal to a select group of graduates who have made significant contributions to society and scholarship. This year’s recipients: an art historian who encouraged viewers to simply look; a historian who explored the worldwide impact of slavery; an economist who pioneered game theory as an approach to conflict resolution; and an astronomer with a passion for pulsars.

Receiving the medal today (June 4) are Svetlana Leontief Alpers, fine arts; David Brion Davis, history of American civilization; Thomas Crombie Schelling, economics; and Joseph Taylor, astronomy.

Svetlana Leontief Alpers ’57, Ph.D. ’65, fine arts

Svetlana Alpers is a galvanizing scholar whose impact on art history has been both deep and wide. Seymour Slive, her one-time dissertation reader and now Harvard’s Gleason Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus, called Alpers a scholar “whose numerous, seminal — and sometimes controversial — publications have energized discussions on Renaissance and Baroque art in the international community of historians for more than a quarter-century.”

She became widely known with the publication in 1983 of the groundbreaking “The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century.” But her work before and since possessed a clear confidence in a singular idea: that viewers should look at paintings for themselves, not for hidden symbolism or layered meanings.

Alpers, the daughter of Harvard economist and Nobel Prize winner Wassily Leontief, earned an A.B. in literature at Radcliffe in 1957 and a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1965. She is professor emerita of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley, where she began teaching in the early 1960s. She has also been a visiting scholar in the department of fine arts at New York University.

“Her emphasis on looking first has been as central to her teaching as to her writings,” said New York University art historian Mariët Westermann. “She took equal stock in the enormous stimulus of her graduate students and in teaching undergraduates well [at Berkeley]. Her Ph.D. students have assumed leadership positions in the field, pursuing tracks set out by Alpers but charted with the independence of mind she exemplifies and cherishes.”

Her books profoundly influenced the discipline of art history, and “The Art of Describing” reached beyond the discipline to stimulate new thinking across the humanities. Her later books include “Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market” (1988), which won the College Art Association’s Charles Rufus Morey Book Award in 1990; “Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence” (1994), written with Michael Baxandall; and “The Vexations of Art: Velazquez and Others” (2005), in which Alpers looks backward and forward in time to understand the Velazquez painting “The Spinners.”

David Brion Davis, Ph.D. ’56, history of American civilization

In an essay published earlier this year in Reviews in American History, David Brion Davis traces the awakenings of his moral conscience and his calling as a historian to “a year’s exposure to the rubble and suffering left from World War II.” But it wasn’t only the cruelties of war that affected him. On the boat to Europe shortly after the war ended, he saw black soldiers confined to the lowest hold in slave-ship–like conditions. In Germany, he witnessed violent conflicts between white and black American troops, and he heard racist speeches from his commanding officers.

The experiences shaped him profoundly. Today, as the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, Davis is widely considered the foremost scholar of slavery and its role in shaping U.S. and world history. He broke ground with “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture,” published in 1966. It won the Pulitzer Prize and established a new and transnational direction for research into societal attitudes toward slavery and its contradictions.

Davis received his B.A. from Dartmouth College in 1950 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1956. Over the course of his career, he has written or edited 17 other books, among them “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution” (1975), “Slavery and Human Progress” (1984), and most recently, “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” (2006). He has won the American Historical Association’s (AHA) Albert Beveridge Award, the Bancroft Prize, a National Book Award, the Society of American Historians’ Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement, and, in 2007, the AHA’s Award for Scholarly Distinction.

“The moral imagination has animated all of David’s historical inquiries,” said Nancy Cott, Harvard’s Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History. “He has stated eloquently his conviction that ‘nothing in history is absolute or clear-cut; that truth is always framed in ambiguity; that good and evil are won at a cost; that all choice involves negation.’ This tolerance for ambiguity is a hallmark of the brilliance of his writing.”

Thomas Crombie Schelling, Ph.D. ’51, economics

Over the course of more than a half-century of work, Thomas Schelling has analyzed all manner of threats to humanity, including nuclear arms proliferation, crime, drugs, and global warming. He was swept up in the great events of World War II and its aftermath, and found homes in both government service and the academy. Schelling turned his early interest in bargaining strategy into a body of work on game theory, arms control, and conflict resolution that would ultimately be recognized with the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics.

The Nobel committee wrote in announcing the prize, “Against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race in the late 1950s, Thomas Schelling’s book ‘The Strategy of Conflict’ set forth his vision of game theory as a unifying framework for the social sciences. Schelling showed that a party can strengthen its position by overtly worsening its own options, that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation.” The book became a classic, and its insights have proven to be of lasting relevance for conflict resolution and the prevention of war.

Today, Schelling is a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland and the Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy Emeritus at Harvard. He received his B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1944 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1951. Most of his career was spent developing an approach to game theory that had direct applications for military foreign policy, especially nuclear weapons policy. He wrote two more books on the subject, “Strategy and Arms Control” (1961) — co-authored with Morton Halperin — and “Arms and Influence” (1966). Schelling advised the Kennedy administration, where he chaired the interagency committee that created the hotline between the Kremlin and the U.S. government.

In the 1970s and 1980s, his interests turned in new directions. Schelling explored issues as disparate as addiction, segregation, and climate change — research that was published in “Micromotives and Macrobehavior” (1978), “Choice and Consequence” (1984), and “Strategies of Commitment” (2006).

Joseph Taylor, Ph.D. ’68, astronomy

As a boy, Joseph Taylor spent hours building ham radio transmitters and antennas at his family’s New Jersey farmhouse, once even shearing the chimney clean off the house. His parents probably had little idea those early adventures would lead to a groundbreaking career in astrophysics, and to a Nobel Prize.

Taylor, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Physics Emeritus at Princeton University, earned a B.A. from Haverford College in 1963 and a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1968. He developed an interest in pulsars – rapidly rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields — soon after they were first identified in 1967. Taylor devised a computer algorithm for recognizing pulsar signals, and by June 1968 he and his Harvard colleagues had discovered the fifth known pulsar in the galaxy.

He continued that work at the University of Massachusetts, where he was a member of the faculty from 1969 to 1981. In 1974, Taylor and his then–graduate student Russell Hulse used the 1,000-foot radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to discover a pulsar in a binary system, with two neutron stars orbiting each other. The discovery provided the first proof of gravitational radiation and the strongest support yet for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In recognition, Taylor and Hulse won the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics.

Taylor joined the faculty at Princeton in 1980 and continued to scour the skies for pulsars. He has received many other awards, including the first Heineman Prize of the American Astronomical Society, the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, the Carty Award for the Advancement of Science, and the Einstein Prize. He co-chaired the National Research Council’s Decade Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The panel’s report set U.S. priorities in astronomy and astrophysics for 2000 to 2010.