Prospects, Dire and Otherwise

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In this issue’s cover story,COVID’s Long Shadow,” frequent contributor Julia M. Klein—who in the early months of the pandemic profiled microbiologist and leading coronavirus expert Susan Weiss for the Gazette—offers a ground level, close-up survey of several research efforts in psychology, sociology, bioethics, and other fields aimed at understanding how the experience of the pandemic is affecting different populations and developing potential interventions. Much of the background data involved is grimly predictable, the product of longstanding inequities around income, race, and gender.

One project Julia describes, which actually started in 2019 but has continued into the pandemic, is an ambitious interdisciplinary effort to track the effects of stress on women and children from pregnancy onward in order to identify possible ways to improve their mental health; another is teasing out the balance of economic factors and gender expectations leading to women’s greater burdens in childcare and household responsibilities during the pandemic (more the latter, it appears).

She also reports on researchers making the case for rethinking existing methodologies for distributing care and investigating effective community-based ways to counter vaccine hesitancy among people with limited trust in the health system, as well as on the work of a historian related to how the pandemic will be remembered—or will fail to be, if digital records aren’t preserved and archived appropriately.

It’s a mark of the seriousness of the threats factoring into the annual setting of the Doomsday Clock by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the pandemic doesn’t make the cut. As bad as it has been and still might be, it will eventually fade and humanity will survive—in other words, it’s not an existential threat, like the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, and artificial intelligence and other “disruptive” technologies.

In “The Timekeeper,” freelancer Matthew De George describes the passage of Bulletin president and CEO Rachel Bronson C’90 from Penn to leadership positions at policy think tanks and her current role heading the group formed in 1945 to “equip the public, policymakers, and scientists with the information needed to reduce man-made threats to our existence.” He also sketches in the history of the Bulletin and the advent of the Doomsday Clock in 1947, when the hands were set at 11:53 p.m. These days, we’re living closer to the brink than ever before: since 2020 it’s been 100 seconds to midnight, with the next setting scheduled for this January, in what will be the Clock’s 75th anniversary year.

In the acknowledgments section of his recent book, The Power of Scenery, Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 notes that one seed of the book was a Gazette article on Penn faculty member and building namesake Ferdinand Hayden Hon1886—just one of many stellar profiles he’s written for us on figures ranging from football icon John Heisman L1892 to suffragist leader Alice Paul G1907 Gr1912, Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane M1842 to composer George Rochberg G’49.

In “A First-Rate Version of Himself,” Dennis takes on the writer and anthropologist Loren Eiseley G’35 Gr’37 on the occasion of the Library of America’s having collected his essays in two volumes. Eiseley had what sounds like a bleak boyhood in Nebraska but from the eighth grade was dedicated to pursuing a calling as a “Nature Writer.” Though he would struggle to secure his academic credentials (and later, was a singularly ineffective administrator during a stint as Penn provost), he definitely succeeded at that. Dennis writes: “Few other practitioners of anthropology and its kinfolk archaeology and paleontology have used them so effectively to comment on the human condition—and occasionally the universe’s condition.”

There were fans in the stands at Franklin Field for this year’s Homecoming football game—a loss to Cornell in a generally disappointing season—but the Arts & Culture and most other programming were virtual, as was the celebration of the Alumni Awards of Merit, which was suspended last year. You can view the video of the ceremony at the alumni home page, and also see our story here for photos from the game (everybody looks happy to be there, whatever the score) and read the award citations. As always, congratulations to all the winners!

—John Prendergast C’80

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