Author: Stacey Hou

Thoughts about the Haitian Revolution

The Haitian Revolution, on the same stage as the American revolution and the French revolution, was the first revolution in the Western world to abolish slavery, and this field of study of Haitian Revolution has just come to the public horizon. This Monday in our STS series sponsored by Colby Humanities and Arts, history Professor Jeremy D. Popkin from University of Kentucky presented Haitian Revolution to us from a completely new perspective.


Haitian Revolution is truly remarkable in its own ways. It is the only slavery rebellion that actually succeeded in modern history. Referring back to my sociology class from freshman year, the Bacon rebellion in the US only resulted in worsened treatment of the slaves; therefore the Haitian Revolution was a defining period for racial relationships in the Western world.


Similar to other social movements, the Haitian Revolution was built during a time demanding changes: social stratification, slavery suppressions, regional conflicts, and the divide between nationalism and globalization, at the time mostly taking form of colonization.


Sparked by the influence of Enlightenment ideals and the societal changes in France, the Haitians had no help but their own and successfully carried the revolution through, regenerating a lasting impact that fed into later slavery abolishment revolutions.


However, the Haitian Revolution, despite its lasting changes, was never pretty. Thousands were killed during the rebellion while a massacre was carried out against the remaining white population. Now, in hindsight, many people critiqued the violence element of the revolution while acknowledging what the revolution has accomplished. However, given the circumstances the revolution probably could not have been more successful and less brutal.


In terms of brutality, every revolution almost certainly comes with bloodshed. The Chinese civil war, a revolution that transformed China from capitalism to communism, sacrificed tens of millions of people solely on the march that trekked through half of China. The American Revolution; however, saw much less bloodshed with a death toll of thousands. The English revolution was completed without even beheading a king. What made the difference?


I personally speculate that the brutality is dependent on the previous political infrastructure, and how much non-violent power a citizen has. In China, where the political voice of the common people was not represented, the only way to push for a revolution was through violence and battles. In the US, however, though the divide was so great and forces must be used to reconcile the difference, an ordinary citizen could express their opinion through a vote, rather than through the burrow of a gun. In England, the revolution was hardly a populous one and the transformation of power was completed at the top, when the mass was not mobilized.


However, all the revolutions aforementioned transformed the nation one step closer to democracy. Given different circumstances, the brutality pattern might not follow at all; and in light of Aleppo we must continue to figure out how to fight a social battle instead of a violent one.

Revolutionary! Or Not?

As humans we have come a long way. Existing on earth for merely over 10,000 years, we have come to build the grand monuments and the tiny smartphones; both unthinkable in the natural world.


However, science studies theorist Bruno Latour is not as impressed and you and I do. In fact, according to Professor Keith Peterson from the Colby philosophy department, we have never been revolutionary at all.


Revolutions come in many different shapes and sizes; from scientific revolutions to political revolutions, and, as we have mentioned previously in the semester, even a volcano eruption could trigger a revolution. However, was is a revolution, exactly?


A revolution is generally understood as a historical event that generates a “great divide” from the past time periods. For example, we name the invention of a series of mechanics the “industrial revolution”. Another case of note is the scientific revolution, which produces many theories that are the cornerstones of modern science.


However, did the scientific revolution actually happen? Professor Peterson broke down the illusion for us. The theories that were discovered during this period were actually floating around for hundreds of years, and the publication of them did not stir a huge ripple in the society. Even to this day, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution have certainly not reached every nation and culture in this world, and by the definition of revolution, they are never complete.


This concept of revolution, as illustrated by Professor Peterson, is, in fact, very Euro-centered. These “industrial revolutions” and “scientific revolutions” all share a common origin, that is Europe, and spread out to the rest of the world. Revolutions that are made in the third world countries, however, are barely heard and are considered of little historic significance by Western scholars. Another illusion Westerners have is that our way of approaching nature, the “scientific” way, is the only valid approach, while neglecting the diverse cultures that the rest of the world host that potentially influence more people and could be more advanced. Lastly, Westerners come to understand that there is a dualism between nature and society, and the conflicts between those two are irreconcilable, which is simply untrue. Professor Peterson argues that science, society and politics are actually all intertwined with and dependent on each other, while the debate of the definitions of “true science” and “false science” is simply a societal and political one, as science in fact never stand alone and understood to be universally correct.


Overall, professor Peterson revealed a new way to view revolutions from a philosophical standpoint, and pointing out how much humanity has grown while how little we actually know.

Being a revolutionary on Colby campus

Why would anyone participate in a social protest? In other words, why do social revolutions exist? In this Tuesday’s talk, Dr. Perez, a postdoctoral fellow at the department of sociology, interpreted the phenomenon of social activism from the perspective of functionalism, rationalism, and more.

The functionalist’s basic argument is that there is a purpose for everything that exists in our society. However, this opinion fundamentally contradicts the purpose of social activism: for something to change.

The rationalist paradigm focuses on a different aspect of social activism: the “how” of social mobilization. They see social activism and part of the political process and due to the constant grievance, this phenomenon would always happen.

Nowadays a third theory, a post-rationalist paradigm start to gain popularity. It argues that social movements are not just normal and political; it contains cultural expressions, emotional dynamics, and identity politics. People who participate in social activism are not solely motivated by structural reasons; it is also a form of expressing who they are.

This brings up the century-long controversy: is social activism a form of agency, or embedded in a structure?

During this election cycle, with polarized political voices, social activism is seen expressed in both sides. People were very involved in the standardized political process, including attending rallies, etc.; however, protest was a very common form, from the beginning of the presidential campaigns all the way to now, as President Trump would soon become a reality.

The first wave of protests was climaxed right before the election: both candidates of the major parties were considered “deeply flawed” by many, while the third-party candidates also rendered disappointing performances. As a result, people felt more strongly against a certain candidate than for a candidate, and voted as a measure of damage control rather than positive control. Even on our own Colby campus, I remembered many organized and spontaneous protests against a certain candidate, through marches, gatherings, and even Facebook groups, events and posts. On a liberal arts college campus, people are very conscious about the concept of dictatorship and hyper-masculinity; and during the election, as Trump started to display both traits, students started to protest and mobilize people both based on cultural identities and academic studies. On a diverse campus, Trump’s both racist and misogynic rhetoric was not tolerated, and students went out of their ways to put up signs and events to convey that both messages are very harmful to future of the US, while professors demonstrated through their research that Trump’s hyper-masculine rhetoric is outdated and detrimental to our society.

The second wave of campus protests came after the election, when Trump has secured his presidency. During this phase, the focus of protests has shifted from opposing a certain candidate to try to advance equality causes under a strongman administration. The topics of the protests mostly consist of the fight against xenophobia, homophobia and inequality, and students found protests provide more of mutual, healing atmosphere as we dealt with the aftermath of the election than a mobilizing, political one.

I certainly appreciate having the opportunity to attend a liberal arts college where educated people are supportive of science and progression. I believe that social activism, as big as nationwide ones and as small as the ones occur on Colby campus, truly is a platform that is both a form of structure and agency,  that pushes our society forward.

Revolutionary Monuments

When Professor Jeffrey Schnapp introduced the topic of the lecture, the preservation of monuments, the first thing came to my mind was “leave as it is”: preserve, or restore the historical site as how it was, not as how it might potentially be.

However, BZ ’18-’45 defied this convention about monument restoration. A project lead by Professor Jeffrey Schnapp, it re-envisions the Italian Fascist regime monument into an interactive, futuristic museum that makes its statement clear by embedding a large three-banded LED ring to the third column of the monument’s façade in order to alter the meaning of the monument.

A keyword in Professor Schnapp’s presentation was “contextualization”: the popular opinion about a monument shifts unpredictably and the message that a monument conveys could easily be altered by culture; therefore, a monument itself is not an effective tool to provide any historical context or meaning to the people. A monument, therefore, exists no higher than a fancy structure that carries little original information. By “appropriating” the monument BZ ’18-’45, Professor Schnapp introduces people with more information than the monument initially carries and attracts and educates more people than the monument initially intended. This is the new notion about monument restoration and many people would agree with me that it is a rather smart and innovative one.

Last summer I traveled with my friends to China and visited some of the most famous historic sites in the world: The Forbidden City, The Great Wall, and The Summer Palaces. The Forbidden City was partially preserved as it was and partially developed into museums displaying artworks and bronze crafts. However, there was not much interaction in the exhibitions which are mostly still objects locked up in glass boxes. There were only small windows open for people to peek into the preserved portions and with hundreds of people outside tip-toeing to peek in, we could barely immerse ourselves in the historical context of the Forbidden City. The Great Wall also follows the “preserve as it is” logic and the construction was underway to build a walkway so that people would no longer walk on The Great Wall itself. After our return we also read news about some towns attempted to restore the great wall by smoothing all the stairs into a slope using cement and concrete, completely altering The Great Wall’s appearance for the worse. For The Summer Palace, this preservation logic was used to the extreme: after the second opium war, the entire place was looted by the French and British; thousands of treasures were lost while buildings were burnt down and bridges destructed; only ruins remain. The ruins were intentionally preserved, rather than restored, to serve as a “patriotic lesson for the Chinese people” and to this day these historic events, including the first and second opium wars and colonization attempts still evoke strong emotional response among the Chinese people: with less investment and alteration, more people were educated in the way that the government desired and a strong, sometimes distorted patriotism and group identity were formed.

To conclude, the two approaches, preservation and innovation, should both serve the purpose of educating history in an objective, contextualized way, so that people walk away with better knowledge rather than blindly evoked emotional responses.

Continuing the Darwinian Revolution

This Tuesday for our STS class, we welcomed Professor Judy Stone for a talk titled “The Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution”.


Following suit of Professor Janet Browne’s talk on Darwin’s theories, Professor Stone broadened the topic by discussing the biological implications of the Theory of Evolution. Specifically, Stone stresses that it is common for people to interpret that “progress” is the hidden message in the evolution theories: there is one ideal type that a species strives to achieve, and the rest are unideal individuals. However, this is far from the truth.


The first argument from Professor Stone is that variation is as important as adaptation. When environmental changes come, the exterior factors would select individuals with certain genes and traits to survive and reproduce. However, environmental changes could be multi-dimensional and even back and forth, eliminating the possibility that there is an ideal type that the species would end up with. In fact, since environmental changes are very unpredictable, it is important to maintain a high level of variety to improve a species’ ability to adapt, since mutations and varieties typically take a long time to establish and it would be impossible to generate diversity immediately at the time of change.


Secondly, Professor Stone argues that we need to recognize the diversity within our own species and race is merely a socially constructed illusion. Instead of categorizing people with simplistic terms like “black” and “white”, Professor Stone shows us a collage that shows the vast diversity of people inhabiting Africa: they share very different skin tones and features, and the term “black” is simply not applicable. Furthermore, usually no one single gene is responsible for one single trait. A trait is usually regulated by many genes that are shared by people who do not even express this certain trait, and at the time of environmental change the more diversity we have the more coping mechanism we possess.


Lastly, humans are a rather homogeneous species. Stone points out that there are no subspecies for homo sapiens, which is unusual for a species. The human race is only 150,000 years old, and therefore, as a newly formed species, humans are very homogenous. There is no genetic base for subgroup divisions, as we are in fact very similar to each other. Professor Stone concludes that it is very important for us to recognize the diversity and homogeneity of our species, and cherish our diversity as it is our natural line of defense against environmental changes while treating each other equally with dignity and respect, as we are after all too genetically similar to justify any discrimination.


The Ultra-greenhouse Catastrophe

The weather on our planet seems to be unpredictable and the weather forecast does not always seem to review if it is going to rain in the next 10 hours. However, there has been significant technological breakthroughs in the past that evolved weather and climate studies to be a mathematically based science instead of the traditional observational practice, and those breakthroughs enable climate scientists to make accurate predictions about climate change, and more. Today in our lecture, Professor Emanuel introduces us to the scientific advancements that drove climate science forward.

As Prof. Emanuel has stated, climate changes are common in earth history. There have been multiple ice ages in the past and multiple global warming periods, each imposing devastating effects but at the same time driving evolution forward. In this climate change cycle, however, the driving force is the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and with each increased degree there are also associated effects including higher ocean acidity that wipes out coral reefs and precipitation change that worsens deadly droughts. There are also consequences including rising sea level, melting ice caps, surging infectious disease breakouts, and more.

However, how did climate scientists come to obtain the tools to accurately predict those devastating effects of climate change in the future? They attribute to various breakthroughs in other fields in mathematics, physics, and astronomy. One, for example, is the discovery of Plank’s radiation model. Before Plank’s theory came to be, the black body radiation was thought to be a continuous model, which was disputed by “the ultraviolet catastrophe”, in which ultraviolet light does not radiate as the model predicts. To accommodate this discrepancy, Plank theorizes that energy, instead of being emitted continuously, is emitted in small packets called “quanta”, and using this model the ultraviolet catastrophe could be well predicted. This concept started the realm of quantum physics, and also aided climate and weather science by providing a model by which the earth’s emission follows. With this model, weather forecasts could predict how much heat earth emits as a black body and how much impact it has on weather changes.

The concept of climate change is built on a chain of discoveries and theories. First, Svante Arrhenius, the renown Swedish scientist, predicted the impact of the greenhouse effect and how much temperature would increase based on the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere. Then Milutin Milanković discussed forcing climate by orbit variations, and in the 50s the revolution of geochemistry lead people to believe that climate changes are common in the past. Other new technologies, including satellite sea surface altimetry, ARGO robotic submersible floats and the introduction of numerical weather prediction mutually picture us a future of climate changes. The discussion of artificially adjusting the temperature of the planet is underway, but one theme is clear: we must preserve the only home we have, and it is through one way or another: behavioral change, which is challenging, or discovering new energy sources, which still has a long way to go.

The Darwinian Revolution

In 1859, there was a groundbreaking revolution in both the scientific and religious realms: the origin of species, authored by Charles Darwin, was published. The book changed how people approach biology forever, and has fundamental impacts on modern science, religion, and other aspects of the society.

A century and a half later, the influence of Darwin remains. In Australia there is City of Darwin, named after the evolution giant. There are Darwin branded merchandises, restaurants, even colleges. However, as Prof. Browne from Harvard University have lectured, Darwin’s opinions were not fully acknowledged till at least a hundred years later.

At the time when Origin of Species was published, the theories did not immediately gain popularity. As Prof. Browne put it, it was not a “revolution” but rather a slow change, stretched out over the course of a century. Darwin’s opinions, as they start to gain popularity, were very much challenged. Most of the questions come from people who come from a religious background and the concept of evolution particularly disputed the existence of a creator. Darwin’s response what safe yet smart: instead of labeling himself as an atheist, he resorts to being an agnostic, refusing to enter the debate of whether God exists.

Despite his great achievements, Darwin is still a person with unique personalities, and by revisiting his life we could unveil how his thoughts came to be and how his theory of evolution is sparked. Living in a very private, remote estate, Darwin had a wealthy heritage which provided him with ample time and financial support to pursue his interests. Because of his remote location, most of the communications with his scientific colleagues are achieved through mails, and this large amount of correspondence left us with a rather streamlined thought process of how his theory took its shape. First, through those mails, we could see that he was a very organized person, and made decisions through listing pros and cons. One example was when deciding whether or not to get married, he listed the pros and cons of marriage, and in the end concluding that dying alone would be worse that having too much company.

Another aspect of Darwin’s theories that the correspondence revealed was the emergence of similar theories at the time. Multiple people have written to Darwin regarding similar evolution theories and without Darwin, the evolution theory would probably still be discovered, but under a different name. Now, since Darwin is the name attached to this theory, his name, like the Bible, is quoted by people with different agendas. Eugenicists insist that Darwin’s theory implies that we need to actively “better” our gene while other groups cite Darwin for other discriminatory policies. Science history views Darwin as a “saint”, burying him at Westminster Abbey while the British Natural History Museum puts his sculpture up and down depending how Darwin is perceived by the general public. Darwin’s simple theory is interpreted and misinterpreted in many different dimensions, but it is this social discourse that keeps the theory alive and drives science forward.

True Democracy Has Never Been Closer to Us

This Tuesday, our “Continuing Revolution” lecture series welcomed cartoonist, humanitarian activist and 2016 Oak Fellow, Khalid Albaih. Having been to his lecture a few weeks earlier, this session took on a more casual form, which enabled us to understand his standings and motives more thoroughly.

Mr. Albaih came from an interesting background: born to a politically prestigious family in Sudan, he grew up going to both catholic and Muslim schools, absorbing culture from both sides. Speaking multiple languages and having a deep appreciation for arts, Mr. Albaih took cartoon as his weapon and social media as his battleground and started introducing the western world to authentic news from the Arabic World. As a member of the new generation growing up on the Internet, I resonated deeply with his approach to social media and his view on government censorship.

Mr. Albaih insists that social media is a tool to battle censorship; and when used correctly, it could exhibit a devastating force that brings revolutionary changes. One example is Arab Spring. Governments in the Arabic World, similar to many other developing countries, tend to adopt brutal dictatorships, in one form or another, and under such leadership the only voice in the media is propaganda. Articles are easy to censor; comics are much subtler. Therefore, many artists with opinions picked up their pens and started publishing their drawings. During Arab Spring, however, multiple governments, including Sudan and Ethiopia, shut down their national access to the Internet or completely blocked the use of social media, for though they could censor and control their state media, people were expressing their anger and organizing their movements on social media in a form that the government could not control, and it was transparent to the world. Therefore, the government pulled the plug, and suddenly the voice of the people went quiet. Mr. Albaih, however, continued his work by communicating with the rest the world through comics. His work not only drew attention from the western world to Arab Spring, but inspired people in the Arab World to continue their fight. Along with social media, graffiti copies of his arts were prosperous on the streets, bypassing the government censorship and empowering the people.

Lengthy articles on the state media could be a flat out lie; however, thousands of tweets could shout out the precious truth. Mr. Albaih stressed the importance of “citizen journalism”: the most authentic form of news and sometimes the only access to truth. Social media, or more broadly, the Internet, has changed the power structure and shifting weight to the mass. One ruling entity no longer dominates the voices in our society; people could directly communicate with each other despite economic and geological difference, and make educated decisions for themselves. From tweeting lies told by the presidential candidates to fact checking corporate claims, from uploading videos of police brutality to browsing through Mr. Albaih’s Facebook page, people could no longer be forced with tales that people in power want you to hear. I believe that with instant communication technologies, true democracy has never been closer to us.

The Tambora Revolution: in 1815 and Today


In the year of 1815, the Tambora volcano erupted with tremendous force, turning the entire mountain into a “liquid fire” and causing football-sized stones to rain from the sky. One of the most powerful eruptions in human history, the Tambora eruption resulted in a significant period of climate change, and Professor Wood from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign dissected its impact on the society then in the “Continuing Revolution” lecture series here at Colby College.

The most interesting aspect of the eruption’s impact on our society, in my opinion, is the general cultural shift in the 1816 society: the freakish, cold and twisted trends became the new fashion, which reflected people’s reaction to witnessing the refugee crisis, deadly famines, and grimy weathers.

This historical event is especially relevant now, as we are facing a rapidly worsening climate change. The reality of mass climate refugee is closer to us than ever, and we need to draw lessons from the Tambora event to properly handle such climate shift. The eruption is an ultimate test to us human’s ability to cope with such crisis, and certain systems worked while others didn’t.

An example of the system that worked was the granary system installed in several countries in Europe as well as in China. They were sufficient at relieving the local starvation and the seeding of the next year. Other granary systems, however, including the one in Ireland, failed miserably, as the rulers attempted to export their produce in order to bring down the prices of the grains. This triggered widely-spread local political protest, accusing the government of diverting life-saving supplies to other nations.

However, the granary system also failed in other places, where a rather advanced granary system was actually in place. Wood mentioned that in Yunnan, China, thousands of miles away from the Royal court, spontaneous child/slave market began to emerge in the year of 1816. With the failure of the harvest, parents could not afford to feed their children, and therefore sold them to slavery to ensure their basic needs. Slave market was not their only out-of-the-way response to such a disaster, however. As the normal crop failed, people were desperate for cash to buy live-supporting necessity. One crop that produces the most profit at the time was opium. Therefore, the people of Yunnan converted their rice farms to drug manufactories, and started the drug dealing business that was prosperous till the 1950s.

Despite all the famine, suffering and loss, people still share empathy with one another and tried their best to alleviate the situation. Humanitarian aids were working hard on buying grains abroad and distribute them to the locals. Multiple new religions/cults formed on the mission of feeding the poor. Many poor people turned to religion at this difficult time for a portioned daily meal. However, it was only the lower class that was severely impacted and died in large numbers. The only impact on upper class was a higher food price, and some political struggle, but never hunger. Today in our political system, there is still a major political party that denies climate change and refuses to take on responsibility to make a difference, and if we look back in history, these people are the ones that are likely impacted last by a severe climate disaster. However, it is crucial to remember that we all share this one planet, this one home, and it is up to every one of us to protect it and live sustainably.


The Evolution of Science

“How Revolutionary—and how scientific—was the Scientific Revolution?” is a lecture presented by Professor Dan Cohen, sponsored by the college’s Art and Humanities Center. In the lecture, Prof. Cohen investigated both the revolutionary aspect and the scientific aspect of the Scientific Revolution, which denotes a time period between the 16th and 17th centuries, during which our perception of the cosmos has completely changed.

Now, in the post-Scientific Revolution era, I, with thousands of millions of students majoring in sciences, ask the question: how accurate or scientific is the knowledge that we are learning now?

The statistics are shocking: a significant portion of the knowledge that we learned in college freshman year would be outdated by the time we graduate; thousands of institutions are educated people for the jobs and industries that have not been created yet at the time of their enrollment. This perplexes us: what exactly are we learning, and what exactly are we preparing for?

In my math and physics classes, especially in the upper level ones where professors talk about their current research, I always hear about the same story: this theorem is derived 50 years ago; this critical paper is published 10 years ago; no one believed this model 5 years ago. Now as we are accepting Relativity as the general truth, perhaps a hundred years from now it would be as obsolete as the Newtonian.

To look for answers, we have to look back at the Scientific Revolution. Back then, people’s thinking resemble ours now: believing what they knew were factual, for example, a geocentric model and a flat cosmos. They believed that their science was not influenced by superstition, and was the best way to understand the surrounding cosmos. Today as we look back, we discover their concept of science to be saturated with cultural and religious beliefs. For example, Copernicus, in an argument of heliocentrism, instead of citing numbers or making observations, insists that the sun “deserves” to be the center of universe as it is “noble”, an argument that you would not find in the scientific realm today. Kepler, one of the greatest mathematician, determined that “worthiness” was linked to geometrical shapes when he made the great discovery of Keplerian orbits.

Thousands of years ago, ancient Greek philosopher theorized the four causes of events in the cosmos: the material cause, the formal cause, the agent/effective cause, and the final cause. These four causes are ingrained in our intuition thinking, that despite the official definition of science does not concern the fourth cause, scientists, especially biologists, are still costumed to look for the purpose a specific trait, or of an evolutionary pattern: the reason for the bug to have short legs must be so that they have advantage elsewhere, right? However, in reality, traits in living organisms do not always have an evolutionary purpose: many of them are just there for the ride, including diseases like Alzheimer’s which evolution does not have the tactic to eradicate.

In all, the Scientific Revolution is not going to be the only scientific revolution. As academia revolves constantly with new knowledge produced and published every second, our understanding of the world will be very different every time we look back.