Leonardo da Vinci exhibit in Singapore – “Everything Connects”

A few weeks ago, we took our daughter Asha to see the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit in Singapore. A few things were remarkable about the exhibit. From the beginning it emphasized the interconnections between the different aspects of Leonardo’s work, and with nature, politics, and the entire cultural milieu of his time. The theme of “everything connects” opens the exhibit, and emphasizes that Leonardo viewed the natural world as “living, dynamic, and profoundly interconnected” which is an approach that inspired his work.


The other realization that came from viewing the exhibit was in the end of the sentence – Leonardo “relentlessly pursued” these interconnections. Within the exhibit are displays of pages from his notebooks, and models of some of his inventions. The notebooks reveal the “relentless” effort of Leonardo’s mind – which often one imagines brought insight and discovery effortlessly. Instead Leonardo filled page after page with sketches of birds in flight, as he tried to see how to design a flying machine, literally hundreds of different figures with inscribed polygons within circles within triangles as he sought geometric principles that he would later apply to his (failed) bid to design the Milan cathedral, and within these analytical pursuits of underlying fundamental principles emerges great beauty. The pages explode with beauty in the form of sketches that reveal a mind at work – both breaking down and analyzing the object at hand, while creating a unique synthesis that reveals how these principles connect to large systems being considered – flying machines, military forts, cathedrals.




This simultaneous display of analysis and synthesis itself is a source of wonder, and brings great beauty to his notebooks and a sensibility that is rare to see in any age. The exhibit was great to remind us about how important it is to preserve inspiration, and to look for those interconnections – something that our universities might call “interdisciplinary work.”  The exhibit wonderfully emphasizes that this form of “systemic thinking” is of vital importance as we seek solutions to the complex problems facing our world. Thankfully our new Yale-NUS College is taking this approach in our science curriculum – and our Foundations of Science class next year will have students work in interdisciplinary teams to solve “grand challenge problems” facing our environment using the kind of interconnected and systemic thinking pioneered by Leonardo.  It is exciting to be reminded of both the beauty and urgency of this kind of thought.


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Visit to Azim Premji University, Bangalore

During my visit to Bangalore I had the unique privilege of meeting with the faculty of the new Azim Premji University in Bangalore. Like many new universities in India, Azim Premji University has been founded by a private philanthropy – in this case from the eponymous foundation started by the founder of the Indian electronics company Wipro. Unlike many private universities in India, Azim Premji is founded with very clear social goals to promote development in rural India. Their university has been founded with the goal to create a new generation of graduates who can return to villages to teach and to develop India in its broadest sense.

The current Azim Premji University is located in a temporary home in a Tech campus known as the “PES Institution of Technology” which itself is located in a place called “Pixel Park.” Since so much of Bangalore’s new economy (including Azim Premji) arose from electronics and computers, the location seemed appropriate!  I was joined in the visit by Lakshmi Saripalli from the Raman Research Institution (RRI), who co-organized the Future of Liberal Arts in India conference in Bangalore in January 2014 at RRI.

We met with Venu Narayan, who is leading the new Azim Premji undergraduate school, and a team of the Azim Premji University professors who are hoping to launch their new undergraduate program with their “first batch” this July. Venu described how the students were selected, and how they include over 35% of students who are disadvantaged, with over 50% from rural villages, and in many cases with parents unable to read. Azim Premji makes use of its strong presence in rural India to connect with social welfare organizations that provide secondary education for these children, and then is able to provide tertiary education for a select group of rural students who show strong motivation and interest in helping society. Their admissions process involves interviewing all of the potential candidates, and looking for students who can think outside the box and who have strong and sincere motivation. Their goal is to avoid the “engineering treadmill” and instead to develop students who can promote justice, ask good questions, and be firmly rooted in their own society – with a strong emphasis on Indian culture, politics and aesthetics.

Some of the courses they described were quite interesting – a First Year seminar course in writing and critical thinking, themed towards topics within the Azim Premji mission; a set of courses broadly titled “Understanding India” which will include mixes of social sciences, humanities and sciences, and a full set of science courses which enable the new university to offer majors in Physics, Biology, Economics and Humanities. The group of professors included Usha Rajaram, formerly of UWC Pune, who is helping to develop the humanities curriculum, and Rajaram Nityanada, former director of India’s National Center for Radio Astrophysics, who is helping develop the physics and science curriculum. Within the group was a remarkable spirit – a mix of heady enthusiasm in writing an entirely new curriculum, and also a bit of trepidation, with students due to arrive in just a few months!

The new Azim Premji undergraduate program is part of the constellation of new private universities offering new undergraduate liberal arts programs within India that include Ashoka University, O.P. Jindal Global University, Shiv Nadar University, IIHS, and Ahmedabad University. Azim Premji, with its mission to help underpriviledged students and promote social justice and development, aims to be different, and it will be exciting to watch as this new undergraduate program starts and expands into its new campus in the coming years.

The Azim Premji temporary campus in Pixel Park, Bangalore. Their new campus is being developed and should open in about 3 years. For now they are using a set of floors within the PES Institute of Technlogy

The Azim Premji temporary campus in Pixel Park, Bangalore. Their new campus is being developed and should open in about 3 years. For now they are using a set of floors within the PES Institute of Technlogy


A closeup of the Azim Premji Pixel park sign, showing their floors in their temporary quarters.


Lunar Eclipse in Singapore – April 4, 2015

The third of the tetrad of lunar eclipses was enjoyed by a lively group of about 20 faculty and 15 students on the roof of Kent Vale 2. The cloudy skies of Singapore gave way to a spectacular viewing of the moon. Shuin Jian Wu brought his telescope, and we also had our trusty Yale-NUS 0.125 meter telescope to look at Jupiter and the moon. Some of the spectacular pictures are below. Pizza, beer and lively conversation made the cosmic spectacle even more memorable!  I can’t wait until the next (and final) lunar eclipse of the series next September!IMG_2756 IMG_2758 IMG_2761 IMG_2765 IMG_2770 IMG_2776 IMG_2779 IMG_2796 IMG_2808

Visit to NUS satellite laboratory

During our Yale-NUS College Astrophysics tea series, we had a chance to visit the NUS satellite lab. In this lab, students and faculty from NUS, led by Dr. Cher Hiang Goh, have been building a nano-sat called Gallissia, which contains two experiments – one to measure the electron density above Singapore, and another from the Quantum Physics group to measure entangled photons in space.Victor Loke and Eugene Han gave us a wonderful tour of the lab, explained how the nanosat concept worked, the architecture for their particular satellite.  They showed us the clean room, and the way that they assemble the bus and other parts for the satellite – even giving us a chance to pass around some of the components of the satellite. The stabilization is done through a hysteresis electronic drive, where the Lorentz force upon a pair of parallel wires can be used to point the satellite in different directions and keep it oriented correctly. The propagation of a radio wave from the satellites 500 km orbit altitude will be delayed slightly by electrons in the ionosphere, and the phase shift from these electrons can be used to calculate electron density which will make GPS devices more accurate. Our students really enjoyed the tour, and we saw the Kent Ridge microsat that NUS is also building – some of Singapore’s first ever space missions!

Dr. Goh also explained how important this sort of experience is for students, who have a chance to help test, assemble and even launch the spacecraft!  He mentioned that our Yale-NUS liberal arts students are particularly helpful for space science, as a mission depends both on its technical excellence, and an awareness of the other economic, social and political factors around the use of a spacecraft, as well as on marketing and human factors – all elements covered within the liberal arts!

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Liberal Arts in India Conference Finished! #LiberalArtsinIndia #flai2015

After the conference in India I was really gratified by the wave of interest in liberal arts in India. Our hosts, Ashoka, Jindal and Shiv Nadar, were extremely gracious, and I admire the courage, energy and intelligence which as launched all three projects. Bringing all this together in India has been a wonderful experience, and our organizing committee – Arjendu Pattanayak, Lakshmi Saripalli, Nimit Mehta, Kathleen Modrowski, Rahul Agarwal, and myself all benefited from the wonderful ideas that sprung up in our last day. Our plans are beginning for our next year’s meeting. The basic parameters appear to be a meeting in early January 2016 – probably Jan 7-9 – and we are considering having the new meeting in Pune or Ahmedabad, with the possibility of having a chance to visit the new institutions in those cities. This would include FLAME in Pune, and the IIT Gandhinagar and the University of Ahmedabad. Thanks to all for coming, and please do send me ideas at bryan.penprase@yale-nus.edu.sg for what you would like to see in our next Liberal Arts in India 2016 meeting! Also we plan to have a strong social media presence in our next round, and I appreciate Barney Bate @BernardBate, Rahul Choudaha @DrEducationblog, for helping with our social media ideas, and I will be experimenting with hashtags, and other twittersphere things in the coming months to get the word out about our nice community of liberal arts in India that is building. Also thanks to all the institutions – Shiv Nadar University @SNU_India, University of Chicago Center in India @UChiDelhi, and Ashoka University @AshokaUniv – I will try to get some messages about these wonderful institutions  tweeted in the coming days too!


University of Chicago Center and Indian Liberal Arts

Our final day of the conference was perhaps my favorite. We were hosted by the University of Chicago’s New Delhi Center, and as a U of C alum (PhD Astrophysics ’85!) it was great to see the center, which seems just perfect for enabling strong engagement with India, academic collaborations, conferences and any number of functions. I am hoping to come back – perhaps to help with further meetings among the remarkable institutions that helped host our meeting – the Ashoka University, the O.P. Jindal Global University, and the Shiv Nadar University. The third day was sponsored by Shiv Nadar University, and they brought their Director of the School of Natural Sciences, and Dean of Research and Graduate studies, Rupamanjari Ghosh, who gave a fascinating overview of this dynamic institution. We heard from the team at the new Mahindra UWC in Pune, and their very interesting project-based curriculum for high school students, and the urging by Pelham Roberts for colleges to change the way they admit students to enable such innovative programs to provide students to colleges like the ones at our meeting. A meeting in Singapore may ensue among several of the UWC campuses to discuss what essential science, humanities and social science should be part of the new high school curriculum, and I hope to involve many of our Yale-NUS College faculty in this discussion. Lakshmi Saripalli described her journey intellectually and how she began to implement change in her community of Bangalore, and how she became a leading voice within Bangalore for education and social improvement.

Rahul Choudaha provided a great overview of how organizations like AAC&U provide advocacy for liberal arts and our discussion enabled us to realize that perhaps an Asian or Indian version of AAC&U (IAC&U?) could help promote liberal arts within India, and advocate for faculty development, expansion of liberal arts and holistic education within India and throughout Asia. It was resolved that we should try to create an AA&U workshop to discuss this exciting possibility. Other consortial possibilities were discussed by Bertil Lindblad from Pomona College. We also had an amazing discussion about recruiting and developing faculty that included talks by Fred Hagstrom of Carleton College who gave a masterful description of their Perlman Learning and Teaching Center, and we heard from others who are launching amazing new programs within India such as as Usha Rajaram from Azim Premji University and Rishikesh Krishnan from IIM Imdore. In both cases their new programs in liberal arts and integrated liberal arts and management require them to hire large numbers of faculty who then have to form close teams where they develop curriculum, and help build a teaching culture. The commonality of the many colleges within India and outside of India was apparent – similar dynamics within O.P. Jindal, Ashoka, Yale-NUS and these institutions were discussed among the participants. Perhaps the reason why this day was so exciting was the participation element – so many voices were heard as we opened the microphones to them for a wide-ranging discussion about faculty development, assessment, institution building and our next meeting. After today I am very excited to plan a third meeting for the Future of Liberal Arts in India!

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Future of Liberal Arts in India conference – Day 2

In the second day of the conference, we were based at a new University outside of New Delhi called the O.P. Jindal Global University. This institution was founded by a partnership between the charismatic founding Vice Chancellor, Raj Kumar, and O.P. Jindal, an Indian billionaire who made a fortune on steel and other primary resources.  Naturally the enormous campus is enclosed in steel beams, and features a beautifully landscaped set of greens and an array of buildings that stretch out onto the horizon. A large Indian flag waves serenely in the middle and approximately 2000 students attend. Raj Kumar greeted our conference very graciously, and hosted us for the day with a nice lunch, a cultural program and a dinner. The highlights for me of this conference was to be part of a panel on “Innovative Science Pedagogy” with Arjendu Pattanayak from Carleton College and Somak Raychaudhury from Presidency College. All of us presented what amounts to about 60 years of experience teaching science in a liberal arts context, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions with both of them about matter, determinism, and our theories of how best to teach science to undergraduates. It helps that all three of us are in physics or astrophysics, but I think more than having a common science between us we share a deep enthusiasm for teaching and sharing the mysteries and excitement of science with our students. Another notable talk included on from Neil Lutsky, who took a year off from Carleton to teach psychology at the new Ashoka University (he finds the students “talented, motivated and engaged” and “grateful” to have a chance to learn liberal arts). Bennett McClellan from Jindal shared his thoughts about the ways in which universities can be founded to provide not just for the 21st century but for the 22nd and 23rd century – with effective management and governance, adopting some of the principles from his mentor Peter Drucker. Jane Schukoske shared her work with the very interesting foundation known as the S.M. Sehgal Foundation that helps improve the life of women within rural India, and my friends Amlan Goswami and Somnath Sen arrived from Bangalore to share the latest work they are doing from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, a fascinating think tank that studies the many dimensions of the Indian urban experience. Their take is that by studying the complex mix of culture, economics, architecture, resource limitations, and science, it is possible to understand the “messy” and rich lived experience or urban areas.

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The Future of Liberal Arts in India 2015 meeting in New Delhi

This week I am at the Future of Liberal Arts in India 2015 meeting in New Delhi. I can’t express how gratifying it is to see so many enthusiastic and brilliant educators gathering together to discuss exciting new curriculum, new universities, and new approaches to educating students in India, the US and Singapore. The conference is a sequel to the Future of Liberal Arts meeting I co-organized with Lakshmi Saripalli at the Raman Research Institute back in January 2014. This new conference has been many months in the making, and has been developed in conjunction with Carleton College, Yale-NUS College, the Ashoka University, and the O.P. Jindal Global University, along with some assistance from Shiv Nadar University. These last three universities are brand-new campuses within India offering new types of undergraduate education. They include liberal arts, and an emphasis on educating the whole student – with leadership development, humanities and arts, and social sciences mixed into the education to produce graduates who will be more creative and more responsive to the needs of India in the coming decades. Amazing presentations by faculty and leaders from across the world have been shared for the first day, which discussed innovative ways of teaching humanities and social sciences, and ways to work to integrate India’s rich cultural past in a form of education that prepares students for the volatile and unpredictable future. The web site for the conference is at http://future-liberal-arts-sciences-india.commons.yale-nus.edu.sg/, and so far some of my favorite presentations include the discussion about the new IIT Gandhinagar curriculum and ways of integrating theatre into a technical curriculum (with talks by Brian Brophy and Srivinas Reddy), the discussion of India’s vast cultural riches from the VC of the Ahmedabad University, a brilliant opening address from Shiv Vishwanathan, as well as fascinating talks from the President of Carleton College, Steve Poskanzer, on creating a culture of teaching excellence.

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Visit to Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong and Macao

As part of my work organizing “Global Liberal Arts” conferences for Yale-NUS (including our October 2015 campus opening) I am learning more about leading programs in Asia for undergraduate liberal arts. During February 2015 I met with officials from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. My astronomy connections have enabled me to connect with Henry Wong, who is head of the “New Asia College,”  a residential undergraduate College within CUHK.

CUHK has some great exchange programs with many very good universities – including Yale, Occidental, and CMC. The Yale program in particular was interesting, as it includes a set of 8 students chosen carefully from both CUHK and Yale who exchange visits over their breaks. One set from CUHK visits Yale in New Haven during Chinese New Year, and the other set comes to Hong Kong during their Spring Break. During the visits they present papers to each other and take a short course on the politics and culture of the home country. The group then forms a very active alumni group that meets regularly after their time at CUHK and Yale.

The CUHK met with me to describe their international programs, their e-learning programs, and a very interesting general education course they have created which has a pair of interdisciplinary semesters all students take. The first semester is called “In Dialog with Nature” and the second semester is called “In Dialog with Humanity.” Both courses have blended the best works from a wide range of East and West, and ancient and modern thought. The books are really quite interesting, and are a nice intermediate form of common curriculum mid-way between Yale-NUS and some of the other GE programs. Their books they have created for the course are described at https://www5.cuhk.edu.hk/oge/index.php/en/2011-06-22-08-12-11/the-course-books.

They also gave a great presentation on their Teaching and Learning Center and some of the ways they are fostering better course design, assessment and e-learning. They have adopted a system called “micro modules” where instructors in a very wide range of courses are encouraged and supported to create very short 1-2 class online segments, that they then might later develop into something larger. These snippets of classes serve as a useful tool for sharing teaching techniques and for giving students a taste of the different classes. They have also joined Coursera and have developed 5 courses so far and have plans for more. This is a very exciting, innovative and beautiful campus, and I hope to work more with them in the future!

During the visit I also had the chance to meet with Pomona College trustee and remarkable philanthropist and political leader Bernard Chan, who kindly invited me to dinner and for a short cruise in Hong Kong harbor on his yacht. I also met with Yan-Yan Yip, the CEO of the Hong Kong think tank known as the Civic Exchange, which studies sustainability and livability issues within Hong Kong. Finally a short trip to Macao included the chance to visit the brand-new University of Macao campus, and I was greeted by Professor Chuan Sheng Liu, a brilliant plasma physicist who is leading one of the residential colleges at the University of Macao. A fantastic trip!

Global Observatory Network for Solar System Observations (GONSSO)

During the early part of 2015, I organized a conference at Yale-NUS College, Singapore, that gathered astronomers from across Asia to discuss ways to coordinate our observing and to do some exciting new projects in time-domain astronomy. The meeting web site is at http://gonsso.commons.yale-nus.edu.sg/. The meeting included a day of discussions at our Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and a day at the nearby National University of Singapore.  During the meeting we were joined by astronomers from California (Caltech + Pomona C0llege), India (IUCAA), Thailand (NARIT), Taiwan (NCU and Lulin Observatory), South Korea (SNU), the Phillipines (Chris Go), Malaysia (Malaysian National Observatory), and Turkey (ISTEK). We also had a fantastic clinic on high-resolution imaging of Jupiter from Chris Go, one of the leading ground-based amateur astronomers, and a visit by Glenn Orton, project scientist for the NASA Juno mission, who discussed how a global campaign of observing can support the Juno mission to Jupiter. The next day included presentations from the entire group on their exciting research, and open-ended discussions on how to collaborate. Our next step will be to launch a “global Jupiter campaign” as Jupiter enters opposition. During two three-day windows, our entire network of observatories will work together to create two full-planet maps of Jupiter and these will be analyzed to detect motions within the cloud decks of Jupiter. We also will be working to help incorporate some of these observatories into collaborative projects with the Caltech Zwicky Transient Factory (ZTF) project for time-domain astrophysics. It should be exciting!

Below are some pictures from our meeting.



Above: Chow Choong Ngeow, from Taiwan’s Lulin Observatory and the National Central University of Taiwan explains some of the science highlights from his observatory to our audience gathered at the NUS ICCP9 part of our conference.


The audience for the NUS ICCP9 session – which included astronomers from Yale-NUS, NUS, Pomona College, Seoul National University, Langkawi Observatory (Malaysia), NARIT (Thailand), and other parts of the world.



Chris Go, from the Philippines poses with Bryan Penprase, the conference organizer.



Pomona College student Franklin Marsh poses with Chris Go in the Yale-NUS College computer lab.



Our hands-on imaging clinic made use of the best available software for providing HST-like images of Jupiter. Here both Chris and Glenn help users work with the software packages in the Yale-NUS Computer lab. Glenn confers with Franklin about Jupiter (left), and the group works on their images (right).

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