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Speaker Series with Scholars

John Ma, Professor of Classics, teaching a class of alumni

2017 Scott Rudd

The Columbia Undergraduate Scholars Program (CUSP) provides named scholars with enhanced academic and cultural opportunities.

2019-2020 Theme: Dissonance

Dissonance is typically defined as the absence of harmony. In music, a lack of conformity or unified pattern in sound can often lead to unpleasant compositions that can be jarring to the listener’s ears. However, this dissonance can be deliberately used as a tool to create moods that evoke powerful emotions, such as excitement, anguish, or sorrow. Dissonance engenders tension, but from this tension springs innovation and novel experiences. Beyond the confines of music, dissonance exists similarly in the ways in which artists, scholars, and scientists meld seemingly disparate media, inquiries, and philosophies to produce surprisingly consonant works. Dissonance reverberates in the pages of popular and poignant literary works, as the rising action among protagonists settles into satisfying narrative resolution. It echoes in the meeting rooms of large corporations and small start-ups alike, where individuals with diverse specializations and varying levels of expertise come together in pursuit of a shared goal. It rings in the awareness of the painful histories of conflict in nations and societies that, today, exist in a state of peace that could have never been anticipated. In many ways, dissonance embodies the rhythm of life itself, an existence fraught with the uncertain and unexpected that somehow still manages to give way to beauty and closure. More than just curiously placed notes on a musical staff, dissonance captures the value of navigating through and learning from the discomfort of the known past and an unknowable future.

The CUSP Distinguished Speaker Series follows an intellectual theme that is the foundation of our year-long inquiry. This year's talks explore the theme of “Dissonance.” We will consider this theme within the fields of music, psychology and behavioral science, technology, philosophy and ethics, health and medicine, the biological sciences, and economics.

Upcoming Talks​

Robert G. O'Meally: Antagonistic Cooperation: Dissonance, Jazz and American Culture
Thursday, February 13, 2020; 6:00–8:00 p.m.

For this talk, Professor Robert G. OMeally will consider this statement by the composer-pianist-bandleader Duke Ellington: “Ours is an American band, because it is a democratic band. Each player is an individual with a personality and a voice.” Asked about being a Black American musician, Ellington turned to his piano. “Hear that chord?” he said. “That’s us. Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part.”

Location Davis Auditorium on the 4th floor of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research, 530 West 120th Street

Shree K. Nayer: Future Cameras: Redefining the Image
Tuesday, February 25, 2020; 6:00–8:00 p.m.

Computational cameras use new optics to capture a coded image, and an appropriate algorithm to decode the captured image. This approach enables us to produce images that are rich, immersive and interactive. In this talk, we will show examples of computational cameras that are transforming the way visual information is captured, communicated and perceived by both humans and machines.

Location Davis Auditorium on the 4th floor of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research, 530 West 120th Street

Venkat Venkatasubramanian: How Much Income Inequality Is Fair?
Monday, March 2, 2020; 6:00–8:00 p.m.

Extreme economic inequality is widely seen as a serious threat to the future of stable and vibrant capitalist democracies. In 2015, the World Economic Forum in Davos identified deepening income inequality as the number one challenge of our time. Yet some inequality is inevitable, even desirable and necessary, for capitalist societies to work productively. As different people have different skills, and different capacities for work, they make different contributions in a society, some more, others less. Therefore, it is only fair that those who contribute more earn more.

But how much more? What is the fairest inequality of income?

This critical question is at the heart of the inequality debate. The debate is not so much about inequality per se as it is about fairness. This central question about fair inequality has remained unanswered in economics and in political philosophy for over two centuries. Mainstream economics has offered little guidance on fairness and the ideal distribution of income in a free-market society. Political philosophy, meanwhile, has much to say about fairness, yet relies on qualitative theories, such as the ones by Rawls and by Nozick, which cannot be verified by empirical data.

In this talk, Professor Venkatasubramanian will discuss his recent work on answering this question quantitatively. His theory leads to surprising insights into political philosophy, economics, game theory, statistical mechanics, information theory, and systems engineering perspectives to this question.

Location Davis Auditorium on the 4th floor of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research, 530 West 120th Street

Lyle Owerko: Lyle Owerko, Photographer
Tuesday, March 10, 2020; 6:00–8:00 p.m.

Lyle Owerko is a photographer and filmmaker with a diverse roster of clients including major brands, corporations and human rights groups. Perceptive and knowledgeable of urban movements, his intuitive and technically crafted images have found their way in to the lexicons of both pop culture and photo journalism. On September 11, 2001, he shot the cover image for Time magazine's coverage of 9/11. Framed in somber black, instead of TIME's usual all-red border, his picture delivered one of the most iconic moments in history through unforgettable detail. Lyle's current projects seek to bridge social and political gaps while celebrating the unique perspectives and dialogues of our modern world.

Location Davis Auditorium on the 4th floor of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research, 530 West 120th Street

Past Presentations

Robert O’Meally: 'This Music Demanded Action': The Challenge of the Core
Monday, August 29, 2016

George Michelsen Foy: Finding North: How Navigation Makes us Human
Thursday, September 22, 2016

Gareth Williams: Navigating Life: The Odyssey
Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Dimitris Christopoulos: Is it Really a Crisis or Just Another EU Failure? Contradictions and Dangers of the Dominant European Discourse on Migration.
Monday, October 10, 2016

David Helfand: Navigating the Misinformation Age
Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kaitlyn Parkins: “Cool Jobs” Nocturnal Navigators: Understanding Migration Patterns of New York City's Birds and Bats
Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Jeff Kluger and Alan Stern: Cosmic Navigation
Monday, November 14, 2016

Greg Milner: Time To Go
Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Steve Bellovin: Software and the Problem of Complexity
Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Allison Cuneo: “Cool Jobs”
Monday, March 6, 2017

Lincoln Paine: A Map and a Sense of Time: A Guide to Navigating the Global Past
Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Kathy Nagel: Olfactory Navigation in Fruit Flies
Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Beau Shaw: Navigation, Education, and Democracy in Plato's Republic
Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Professor Gareth D. Williams: What's the Score with the Core? — "CUSP/ASP Annual NSOP Lecture"
Friday, August 31, 2018

Professor Bernard E. Harcourt: On the American Counterrevolution: The Long View of History in Politics and Law — “CUSP Inaugural Lecture”
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Gareth Williams: The Core and More: The What, Why and How of a Columbia Education
Friday, August 30, 2019

Ravi Kailas and Cathy Guo: The Striver vs. The Witness: An Entrepreneur's Search for Value
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

J. Ralph: Evolocean
Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Katja Maria Vogt: Disagreement and Relativism
Thursday, October 10, 2019

Scott B. Kaufman: The Light vs. The Dark Triad of Personality
Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Brad Garton: Computer Music: A Dissonance of Disciplines
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Jonny Podell: Consciousness Is the New Rock 'N' Roll
Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Jason Flom: Why I Care About Criminal Justice
Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Linda P. Fried: Public Health's Success - Our Longer Lives - Requires Changing Public Health
Tuesday, December 3, 2019

To learn more and/or register for these events, contact us at