The Wright Center

During the 1990s, the Wright Center for Science Education blossomed into a world-class organization dedicated to the training and retraining of science teachers to use innovative methods to stimulate young minds. Generously funded by the Fondation H. Dudley Wright of Geneva, Switzerland, the center is an independent entity attached to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. As its first director, Eric Chaisson has built the center from scratch, acquiring additional funding via partnerships with other organizations as diverse as NASA (federal funding), the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (state funding), the Foundation for the Future (private funding) and Paramount Communications (corporate funding).
   Based in the huge Science and Technology building on the Medford campus, among a group of more than a hundred scientists and engineers, the Wright Center employs about a dozen dedicated professional educators who work alongside approximately 30 Wright Fellows, or master teachers, who flux in and out of the center each year. Working on a variety of programs and activities designed to improve science literacy at all levels--from grade school to grad school--its principal targets are secondary-school teachers, who play such a critically important task in our technological democracy by exposing most citizens to the only science they will ever get. With the Wright Center, along with other groups like it, Tufts is leading the way among universities reaching out to help their surrounding pre-college communities.
   Being interdisciplinary in nature, the Wright Center's mission matches well its intellectual theme of--you guessed it--cosmic evolution. The arrow of time acts as a backbone on which the center hangs its many programs, products and activities. As each Wright Fellow contributes to the growing base of novel instructional techniques and integrated science resources, more "meat" is placed on the bones. "Our twin goals are innovation and dissemination," says Chaisson. "People can't get into the center without innovating and they can't get out without disseminating."
   Shown here are two of the Wright Center's most recent products--an educational CD-ROM and a glossary of terms, both addressing the interdiscipline of cosmic evolution and designed for pre-college and university teachers. The CD contains some 500 megabytes of information, including nearly a half-million words, several hundred figures, numerous animations and a digitally compressed movie, all of it produced in the center's Science Visualization Lab. The glossary is an ongoing attempt to build a common language agreeable to all scientists while crossing each others' boundaries. Both products are available free of charge.
   For more information on the Wright Center, including regular updates of its many events and products for teachers and public alike, consult its award-winning website: www.tufts.edu/as/wright_center.

On the Path of an Epic

For the past 25 years, Eric Chaisson has been fascinated with the concept of cosmic evolution.
   "It's a positive obsession, a love for the subject, and one that causes me to think about it nearly all the time," explains Chaisson in his book-lined office at the Science and Technology building. "Whether I'm commuting on the train from Concord, coaching peewee hockey teams at dawn in Dorchester or sitting in endless committee meetings at Tufts, I'm usually toying with the central features of this newly emerging worldview. My feet may be on the ground, but my head is well beyond. I passionately want to know how reality came to be, what makes it all tick."
   That passion has certainly fueled Chaisson's teaching career here at Tufts and at Harvard, as well as an extraordinarily popular lecture series that he hosts at the Boston Museum of Science each fall. It has also been a powerful source of inspiration for his writing. He has written more than 100 papers in journals and 11 books. His first book, Cosmic Dawn (1981), and The Hubble Wars (1995) both won the Science Writing Award of the American Institute of Physics. And his college-level textbook, Astronomy Today, is the most widely used such text in the nation. But the book of which he is most proud--Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Harvard University Press, 2001)--is the result of 19 years of writing.
   "I never worked on the new book full time, only with my left hand," says Chaisson. "Although my first book took me only six weeks to write because it was all in my head and simply required spilling out onto paper, the new book needed to percolate while I wrote it."
   Cosmic Evolution, perhaps for good reason, took two decades to complete. This book ambitiously attempts to take the scenario of cosmic evolution to the next step--namely, to quantify the arguments and make them more technically sound. Not surprisingly, that means lots of thermodynamics and energy metrics applied to fields as diverse as cosmology, planetology, molecular biology and industrial
   civilization. Despite the technical nature of the text, which is confined to three short chapters, the book is receiving early accolades as a "superb synthesis" (Le Monde) and an "illuminating work" (London Times). Celebrated sociobiologist E.O. Wilson in a recent review praised Chaisson's "command of the subject and clarity of exposition" and Nobel prize-winning chemist Dudley Herschbach wrote, "A lucid and sprightly guide, he brings forth original and provocative observations, while gathering a host of wonders in his cosmic embrace." And from the leading anthropologist Brian Fagan: "Eric Chaisson has written a definitive synthesis of what he calls the golden age of astrophysics and biochemistry. Cosmic Evolution presents a dramatic new worldview for the 21st century."
   Now the real work begins. Chaisson considers all that he has done to date in teaching, researching and writing about cosmic evolution to be a mere preface to the major intellectual effort ahead--and the magnum opus to come.
   "This is my ultimate concern, my life's work," he says. "Discovering and sharing are the lifeblood of an academic."

 

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