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Preface 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 chapter, and enjoyed it and both learned a lot. I am grateful for the opportunity it afforded to sit in the big rocker in his room, to read aloud and chat about big ideas and events like the Big Bang,the Roman Empire,colonialism,World War II, and lots of stuff in between and beyond. It made me think about how most of us—if not all of us—irrespective of age, don’t really know what the big subjects of inquiry are about, but we want to know! We get some sense through the usual educational trajectory, but even those who choose to go to college and even “the academy”enter higher education not knowing what kinds of things a professor of x thinks about, and leave only getting a sense of a few. Every year I sit with prospective students, or the children of friends wondering about university, and am asked the question,“What do mathematicians do?” My colleagues all across the campus have analogous conversations about their own disciplines.These kinds of conversations are hardly limited to those looking for colleges or careers.They happen between adults and even between colleagues.In the best of cases they are driven by a sincere interest in the world of ideas. With these thoughts in mind, I arrived at the idea of collaboratively writing a book, analogous to Gombrich’s, but explicitly organized according to ideas rather than time. So this collection of essays is the result of that initial rocking chair–inspired idea, which could be viewed—as per the title—as collection of viii preface answers to a broader question,“What are the arts and sciences?”It is by design organized by subjects, written by various of my colleagues, who are in turn, by the nature of the organization of our college and almost any other, sorted into disciplines of which each of us are professors of various ranks and stripes.This organization of the academy (why we have the departments we do) has its own interesting evolutionary story,too long to go into here.On the level of metaphor, I like to think it resembles the universe: ever expanding, replete with beautiful, dynamic,and diverse clusters of coherence,linked across time and space,whose overarching structure is born of simple forces—in this case, the urges to understand , create, and even predict. This book is in some sense also a brief introduction to the subjects of today’s liberal arts by members of a faculty at a liberal arts college.The liberal arts ethos is built on a curiosity about the world at large and a belief in the importance and necessity of inspiring and fostering that broad-based curiosity. The kinds of flexible minds and critical thinking engendered by such an education have perhaps never been more in need than they are today. While the labeling of subjects might suggest that there are strict disciplinary boundaries, in fact all of the subjects represented here are now frequently pursued in an interdisciplinary fashion, and the present-day organization of the academy and almost every university reflects those porous boundaries too. Throughout my time at Dartmouth I have always been grateful to have so many colleagues happy to patiently explain their work to me or to answer my naive questions about their discipline. I am lucky to have so many colleagues eager to share the love of their subject with their students and beyond, for without them this idea would have died on the vine. I apologize in advance to those whose disciplines are missed herein. Constraints of space, not of interest or import,make it impossible to explore all the worlds comprised by the universe of any university. Similarly, at the next scale, each essay here is but a doorway...


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