Cover

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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv

Contents

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pp. v-vi

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Preface

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pp. vii-xii

This book is meant to be a brief tour through our evolved world of ideas. It is very much inspired by W. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, a wonderful book that I read to my son Alex when he was eight. Gombrich’s book is a friendly, condensed world history meant for young inquisitive minds, but it’s written in that avuncular Victorian-in-the-armchair manner and so is pretty erudite in many ways, perhaps too erudite for most contemporary American eight-year-olds. I didn’t know that, though—and was aware of the many gaps in my own world history knowledge—so we read the book together, chapter by...

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What Is African American Studies?

Derrick E. White

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pp. 1-12

What if I told you that most of the great American histories were half-truths and some were outright lies? Many of the great American heroes fell far short of heroism. In the “land of the free and home of the brave” slavery and cowardice reigned. The American Revolution was not for all.

A central reason for the falsity of many great American histories has been the minimization or exclusion of African Americans (and other ethnic minorities) from this history. Many Americans can recall the deeds of the Founding...

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What Is Anthropology?

Sienna R. Craig

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pp. 13-26

When I tell people that I am an anthropologist, sometimes they smile politely and say, “That’s nice!,” not knowing what to make of that five-syllable word. Some people ask, “Doesn’t that have something to do with dinosaurs?” Other people respond, “How cool! Like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark?” On a few occasions, people have asked me what tribe I study and if I’ve ever lived in an igloo or a tepee.

What is anthropology? None of these answers is exactly right, but they all contain little bits of truth about what anthropology is, or can be. In order to...

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What Is Art History?

Ada Cohen

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pp. 27-45

For many people, thinking about art starts and ends with a trip to a museum. There for a few hours or maybe even a day, while going through the galleries, the museumgoer is pulled into many different worlds as she encounters various objects and ideas: a serene impressionist riverscape; the victory implied by a jewel-encrusted Ottoman sword; the energetic build-up of drips, lines, and dots on an abstract expressionist canvas; the regal ceremony enacted on an ancient Assyrian relief; or the absorbing narrative of a Japanese painted scroll. One of the pleasures of being a professional art historian is the opportunity to explore...

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What Is Astronomy?

Ryan Hickox

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pp. 46-61

Astronomy, at its heart, is exploration on the grandest scale. Humans are natural explorers, and intrepid adventurers have now journeyed to the deepest ocean trenches and the highest and most remote mountains. We have even sent a handful of people to the moon, and our robotic surrogate explorers have now reached the edge of the solar system. These achievements are fascinating to people of all ages—in elementary school I learned by heart every book in the library about the Apollo missions to the moon and the Voyager probes to the outer planets. As I got older and studied math and physics I began to focus my exploration...

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What Is Biology?

Amy Gladfelter

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pp. 62-73

In nearly every nook of the planet there are molecules, cells, and tissues that when mixed together are alive. We feel it with the sensation of our own heartbeat; we witness it in the plants and animals that share our homes. Biology is part of every moment of our every day. Yet how often do we actually step back to marvel that life happens at scales from the tiniest bacterium to the majestic oak tree? The diversity and dynamics of life are complex, fascinating, and even (dare I say) beautiful. Life is in us and all around us—and the study of life and what makes things alive is the province of biology. The study of biology is about...

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What Is Chemistry?

F. Jon Kull

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pp. 74-82

Chemistry is the science of understanding the properties of matter and how matter forms from the basic elements that make up our universe. Chemists seek to understand how the atoms and molecules that make up matter can combine, how and when they react, and how new molecules can be synthesized. Chemistry can explain why water freezes at some temperatures, but remains liquid at others. It can explain why wood is so stable that buildings made from it can last for hundreds of years, yet a single match can reduce it to ashes. It enables us to make the drugs that keep us healthy and the polymers that shape our...

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What Is Classics?

Roger B. Ulrich

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pp. 83-95

The great German scholar who wrote those words nearly 250 years ago believed that the ancient Greeks had reached a level of perfection through their art that represented the pinnacle of human achievement. Many of us would argue today that “greatness” is achieved less by copying the accomplishments of others than through innovation and fresh ideas. If innovation and fresh ideas lead to greatness, then surely Greeks—and later the Romans—have earned the distinction of being “great.” We can still learn from them today (without having to “imitate” them!), building on their ideas to interpret the world around us. Those who devote...

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What Is Computer Science?

Thomas H. Cormen

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pp. 96-107

Have you ever heard the saying “Information is power”? Computer science is all about information. In fact, in some places, computer science is called informatics. So computer science is all about giving people the power provided by information.

Information is a noun. What do we do with it in computer science? What verbs go along with information? The most prominent are storing, accessing, transforming, transmitting, and interacting. That is, computer science, at its core, is about storing, accessing, transforming, transmitting, and interacting with information. We’ll see some examples of these verbs a little later, when we look...

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What Is Ecology?

Mark A. McPeek

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pp. 108-119

Before you begin reading this, take a few minutes to use all your senses and find out as much as you can about your surroundings.

How well did you take in your surroundings? Are you warm, chilled, or comfortable right now? Does the air feel dry or damp? Is the breeze moving air past you, and, if so, in what direction? Do you see or smell any food around you, and if so, is it something you’d like to eat? Are other people near you who might also like to eat that food? Can they potentially get to it before you do? Do you see any place where you could get water or something else to drink? Are any...

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What Is Economics?

Christopher Snyder

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pp. 120-135

When people I meet learn I am an economist, often one of the first questions they ask is, “What’s the stock market going to do?” That’s a great question. If on the day I was born my parents had invested $100 for me in Altria, the stock that has turned out to be the top performer since then, I would be a millionaire today (see figure 1). “What’s the stock market going to do?” is a million-dollar question we would all like to know the answer to. The people I meet are often surprised to learn that I—and most other economists—spend very little time thinking about the stock market. This article will give you a glimpse into the...

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What Is Engineering?

Vicki V. May

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pp. 136-149

What comes to mind when you think about engineering? Try it! Think about engineering for a few minutes and come up with a list of words you associate with engineering and engineers.

Maybe words like “math” and “science” come to mind? Yes, engineers often use math and science, but they also use so much more. Engineers are just as likely to use psychology, art, sociology, music, and history when they work on real-world problems. Engineering draws from many disciplines.

“Difficult” is a word that some people associate with engineering. Yes, I suppose some of the problems...

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What Is English?

Thomas H. Luxon

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pp. 150-159

What is English? Well, sure, you already know it’s a language—maybe even the language you grew up speaking, although maybe not! In fact, English is a language spoken by millions of people all over the world. Its oldest form, Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), was spoken in England and southern Scotland beginning around the middle of the fifth century CE. By the late twentieth century, modern English—the kind that we speak now (and even that is continually changing) had replaced French as the “lingua franca,” or semi-official, language of international business and law. In almost all countries where English is not...

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What Is French?

Andrea Tarnowski

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pp. 160-169

Are you fascinated by the idea of speaking another language? Very early on, I was—in particular, I was eager to absorb the complexities of French. It wasn’t just the mechanics of learning to communicate in French that moved me, but also the hope that this would be part and parcel of a way into French culture and history. While for me it was the French language, for some of you the “other” or “foreign” (we’ll get to those terms later) language might be Russian, Swahili, Hebrew, or German. No matter what your choice, the surest and most direct path to participating in another culture is through its...

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What Is Geography?

Richard Wright

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pp. 170-182

“Geographer” literally means someone who writes about the Earth. It comes from the Greek geo- (Earth) and graphia (writing). That covers a lot of things, right? So just what is geography? In the Department of Geography at Dartmouth College, where I work, we’ve come up with this definition: “Geographers study the material and symbolic transformation of the Earth in relationship to both human and natural processes. In keeping with shifts in culture, the environment, politics, and economics, the boundaries of the geographic discipline are dynamic. For example, environmental change, international development, globalization,...

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What Is Geology?

William B. Dade

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pp. 183-191

Geology is about asking, and attempting to answer, questions concerning our planet, our home, the Earth. How did the Earth come to be? It sounds grand, but perhaps you’ve already asked these kinds of questions while hiking in the woods or picking up a shiny rock in a local park, or maybe even sitting in the movies and seeing a view of the Earth from outer space. We can readily see that the Earth is made up of solid parts (rocks) and liquid parts (deeply buried molten material that sometimes erupts onto the Earth’s surface; surface waters in oceans, lakes, and rivers; and the overlying atmosphere). What are its different parts...

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What Is History?

Robert Bonner

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pp. 192-203

Imagine the oldest person you know. Now think about how that person lived as a kid or a teenager fifty, sixty, or even seventy years ago. If you can, set up a time to have a conversation between the two of you. If you are able to do that, you might be surprised about the memories that are shared. Growing up back then was in some ways not much different than growing up today. More than likely the person will tell you about playing with friends, doing chores because their parents told them to, going to a school and being taught by favorite (and least favorite) teachers, having fun when school was out in the...

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What Is Linguistics?

James N. Stanford

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pp. 204-219

How many languages can you speak? One? Two? Five? Ten!? People sometimes think that linguistics is about speaking lots of languages. But that’s not really what it is. It’s true that some linguists study a lot of languages, but other linguists only focus on a single language, such as English. Linguistics is about researching human language as a scientific topic, the same way astronomers research the stars or biologists research living things.

We’ll discover what linguistics is about by doing some linguistics in a real-life survey about different ways of speaking. Don’t worry about choosing the “correct”...

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What Is Mathematics?

Dan Rockmore

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pp. 220-231

Mathematics is many things. All of you have worked with numbers and played with shapes—and I hope you have enjoyed those activities! When you are adding, subtracting, multiplying, and even dividing (!) numbers, you are using mathematics. When you are confronted with shapes and try to describe them, you are thinking about mathematics. When you are glimpsing and wondering and seeing patterns in your playing and working with numbers and shapes, you are doing mathematics.

You see, mathematics is more than just working out lots of particular problems and getting good at arithmetic or recognizing shapes. Mathematics as a...

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What Is Music?

Larry Polansky

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pp. 232-243

“What is music?” seems like a simple question, but it turns out to be deeper than we think. This is odd. As far as we know, music is something all human cultures share. We evolved to do it. But we can’t say exactly what it is. Trying to answer this question has inspired new ways of thinking about music, using ideas from physics, psychology, art, language, the mind, neuroscience, mathematics, evolution, philosophy, history, and culture. As the inspiration for so many interesting and beautiful ideas and activities, it’s no wonder that so many of us are happy to spend a lifetime in its pursuit, and in its active practice and...

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What Is Philosophy?

Adina L. Roskies

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pp. 244-253

If you ask one hundred philosophers “What is philosophy?” you will get at least one hundred different answers. “Wait!,” you gasp in astonishment, but not because there is disagreement about what philosophy is. Your surprise is that there are one hundred philosophers to ask! Aren’t all philosophers dead? Isn’t philosophy ancient history? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret, and it appears to be a pretty deeply guarded secret, at least until you get to college and maybe even beyond. Here’s the secret: philosophy is a discipline that is alive and well, whose diverse practitioners engage with difficult, important, and interesting questions...

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What Is Physics?

Miles Blencowe

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pp. 254-273

When I was a kid growing up with my younger brother Ben in Vancouver, Canada, our grandfather Sam would come and stay with us for extended periods. Ben and I liked to raid Granddad Sam’s room for loose change in order to provide for our snack habit, taking advantage of the seemingly limitless supply of quarters, dimes, and nickels to be found on his desk and on the floor, a result of him regularly emptying his trouser pockets of all their contents. Also scattered on Granddad Sam’s desk and floor were sheets and sheets of paper covered with strange squiggly-looking symbols. I remember asking Sam what the symbols...

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What Is Political Science?

Russell Muirhead

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pp. 274-285

Political scientists try to understand politics, and they make use of every method and technique that is useful in this quest: they borrow from philosophy, history, psychology, classics, economics, law, sociology, geography, statistics, and applied mathematics, even from literature. What binds political scientists together is not the way they “do” political science—this they will disagree about forever—but what they study: politics. Their methods may be quantitative (they may apply sophisticated statistical methods to large data sets) or qualitative (they may interpret ideas, history, and culture), but in their basic quest they are not that...

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What Is Psychology?

Thalia Wheatley

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pp. 286-296

Have you ever wondered what it means to be you? I’m not talking about how you might describe yourself. I’m talking about what it means to be the only you that will ever exist—the only person that you, and no one else, ever could be. The fact that each of us has a unique mind—or psyche, in Greek—has been a source of fascination for thousands of years, stretching back to the even older concept of having a soul. When we die, our bodies remain but we are gone. Our mind, more than any other part of our body, is the bit that makes us us.

But what actually is a mind and what makes it tick? These are the primary questions of psychology...

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What Is Religion?

Susan Ackerman

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pp. 297-305

What is religion? Every time I teach my college’s “Introduction to Religion” course, I ask my students this question on the first day. Perhaps most often, their answers focus on belief: “Religion is about a belief in God or in gods,” or “Religion is about believing in something superhuman/transcendent/otherworldly,” or “Religion means to believe in higher powers.” My students also often describe religion as having some explanatory power: “Religion explains things that humans can’t know or don’t understand”—things like where the world came from, why we humans are here, and what happens after we die. Relatedly,...

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What Is Sociology?

Janice McCabe

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pp. 306-315

Have you ever wondered why kids group together the way they do at your school? Or whether it’s a coincidence that you read three books in a row about boy animals? Or if your parents are the only ones with friends who are quite similar to them? Thinking about those patterns and investigating them in a systematic way is sociology.

In 1959, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills coined the term “sociological imagination” to refer to the ability to connect seemingly personal experience with broader social forces. By using your sociological imagination, you will come...

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What Is Theater?

Daniel Kotlowitz

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pp. 316-327

When I was fifteen, my father (who had been dragging me kicking and screaming to the opera for years) took me to see a production of Carmen at the New York Metropolitan Opera. I remember being awestruck by the images created onstage: the scenery was red and white and all curves, the lighting was blindingly white and hot, and of course there was Georges Bizet’s fiercely passionate music. The opera had all of the elements that make a great story: love, jealousy, betrayal, and death. However, there was something else about that production that caught my attention. On that particular evening, the air conditioning at the...

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What Is Women’s and Gender Studies?

Ivy Schweitzer

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pp. 328-338

Can you imagine a time when a woman could not win a major party’s nomination for US president? Hillary Clinton shattered this glass ceiling in June 2016, but it was, in fact, the reality ever since our democracy was founded over two hundred years ago. Think about it: despite the famous declaration that “all men are created equal,” it has taken over two centuries for a major political party to even consider a woman as a candidate for the highest elected office in the land. I highlight the word “men” in Jefferson’s iconic phrase from the Declaration of Independence because I don’t think our Founding Fathers meant to include...

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Acknowledgments

Dan Rockmore

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pp. 339-340

Any project with the kind of breadth found here can only come about through the cooperation and contributions of many people. First and foremost, I want to thank my colleagues who contributed to this volume. Writing for a general audience poses all kinds of challenges, and I very much appreciate the generous spirit with which they took this on and their collaborative engagement with the editorial process. With any luck at all, the many friendships that were in place prior to beginning this project are still in place at its completion. Thanks also to the graphic artist Annelise Capossela, whose graceful and clever artwork adorns...

Notes

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pp. 341-348

For More Information

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pp. 349-356

Contributors

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pp. 357-364