L&S 110: Brilliance of Berkeley
Instructor: Chancellor Carol T Christ
Spring 2024 | F 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm | Class #: 32176 and 33329 | 1 Unit (P/NP)
Brilliance of Berkeley is a new course in the College of Letters & Science designed to give incoming students an introduction to the exceptional instruction and accomplishments of UC Berkeley’s diverse faculty. Each week, students will hear 1-2 guest lectures from luminary faculty representing Berkeley’s wide range of colleges and schools. After each guest lecture, students will have the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned while also engaging in peer and community-building exercises. By getting exposure to a wide variety of Berkeley faculty and paths of study, students will feel a deepened sense of connectedness to the campus and will learn more about the available research and co-curricular learning experiences. Out-of-class activities focused on fostering community and connection among the students will also help make UC Berkeley feel like a place where students can thrive and belong.
Goals of the course include inspiring students to:
- Explore the extraordinary instructors, their learnings, and their teaching at UC Berkeley across a diverse range of topics
- Foster a sense of community and belonging for students new to Berkeley
- Explore areas of academic interest and inspire their connection with faculty.
- Develop a community of peers with common academic interests.
- Understand available research and co-curricular learning opportunities on the Berkeley campus.
- Identify what kinds of learning experiences, resources, and class structures might best support lifelong academic engagement at UC Berkeley and beyond.
The course is designed to create an improved sense of belonging for first-year, four-year students and transfer students. Student engagement activities are being arranged in partnership with other units across campus including Intercollegiate Athletes and Student Affairs.
The Brilliance of Berkeley course features 28 distinguished UC Berkeley faculty members, including:
Week 1: Jan 19
My earliest interest in science came with a squint into the plastic lens of a toy microscope where I observed the amazing microbial world of single-cell organisms crawling and swimming across my field of vision. This passion grew through high school, college and graduate school, where I learned to understand life processes at a molecular level. In 1976, my first year as a Berkeley faculty member, I had the great good fortune to attract a stellar PhD student, Peter Novick, with whom I embarked on a search for the genes that control the process of protein secretion. Our chromosomes include ~ 23,000 genes which contain the information to encode the protein molecules that build cells and catalyze the chemistry of life. All of these proteins are made inside the cell but some fraction of them, roughly 30% including molecules such as insulin, must be exported out of the cell to work elsewhere in the body. Just as commercial goods are exported by some kind of traffic conveyance, secreted proteins are packaged into membrane carriers called vesicles for traffic within and ultimately, out of the cell. My lab devised genetic and biochemical techniques to discover the secretory machinery in a simple single-cell organism, Yeast. Biological evolution has conserved this machinery such that the very genes and proteins we discovered in yeast have been found to found to operate throughout our body to organize the secretion of hormones, growth factors, antibodies and all the things our body uses for normal physiology. As is often the case, fundamental discoveries such as this one have unexpected practical applications. Yeast cells are now used to manufacture and secrete large quantities of clinically important proteins, such as recombinant human insulin. Some of the genes we discovered were also found to be the basis of human genetic diseases. I will discuss some examples of this and how our interests have evolved into a major effort to find the molecular and cellular basis of Parkinson’s Disease.
Matthew Walker, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder and director of the school’s Center for Human Sleep Science. Walker is the author of The New York Times and international bestseller Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, which was recently listed by Bill Gates as one of his top five books of the year. Matt Walker’s TED Talk, “Sleep is Your Superpower”, has garnered more than 20 million views. He has received numerous funding awards from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and is a Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2020, Walker was awarded the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Achievements. Walker’s research examines the impact of sleep on human health and disease. He has been featured on numerous television and radio outlets, including CBS’ “60 Minutes,” National Geographic Channel, NOVA Science, NPR, and the BBC.
Week 2: Jan 26
Dacher Keltner (dacherkeltner.com) is a Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center (greatergood.berkeley.edu). Dacher’s research focuses on the biological and cultural evolution of compassion, awe, love, beauty, and humility, as well as power, social class, and inequality (dacherkeltner.com). Dacher is the author of many scientific articles and several books, including Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, and AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life. Dacher has won many research, teaching, mentoring, and service awards, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has consulted for Apple, Pinterest, Google, the Sierra Club, and was a scientific consultant for Pixar’s Inside Out and Soul and for the Center for Constitutional Rights in its work to outlaw solitary confinement.
Unique physical, chemical, and optical phenomena arise when materials are confined to the nano-scale. We are accustomed to making observations and predictions for the behavior of living systems on a macroscopic scale that is intuitive for the time and size scales of our day-to-day lives. However, the building blocks of life: proteins, nucleic acids, and cells, occupy different spatiotemporal scales. Our lab focuses on understanding and exploiting tunable optical and mechanical properties of nanomaterials to access information about biological systems stored at the nano-scale, from neurochemical imaging to agricultural biotechnology.
The Landry Lab’s work develops synthetic bio-mimetic nanocomposites to impart control over nanomaterial interactions with biological systems for two applications: 1) to exploit the intrinsic nanomaterial infrared fluorescence for molecular imaging, and 2) to exploit the highly tunable chemical and physical properties of nanomaterials for targeted delivery of biological cargoes.
Week 3: Feb 2
I discovered AI by reading “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”. What drew me in was the concept that you could specify a goal or objective for a robot, and it would be able to figure out on its own how to sequence actions in order to achieve it. In other words, we don’t have to hand-engineer the robot’s behavior — it emerges from optimal decision making. Throughout my career in robotics and AI, it has always felt satisfying when the robot would autonomously generate a strategy that I felt was the right way to solve the task, and it was even better when the optimal solution would take me a bit by surprise. In “Intro to AI” I share with students an example of this, where a mobile robot figures out it can avoid getting stuck in a pit by moving along the edge. In my group’s research, we tackle the problem of enabling robots to coordinate with and assist people: for example, autonomous cars driving among pedestrians and human-driven vehicles, or robot arms helping people with motor impairments (together with UCSF Neurology). And time and time again, what has sparked the most joy for me is when robots figure out their own strategies that lead to good interaction — when we don’t have to hand-engineer that an autonomous car should inch forward at a 4-way stop to assert its turn, for instance, but instead, the behavior emerges from optimal decision making. In this talk, I want to share how we’ve set up optimal decision making problems that require the robot to account for the people it is interacting with, and the surprising strategies that have emerged from that along the way. And I am very proud to say that you can also read a bit about these aspects now in the 4th edition of “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”, where I had the opportunity to edit the robotics chapter to include optimization and interaction.
I am an Associate Professor in the EECS Department at UC Berkeley. My goal is to enable AI agents to work with, around, and in support of people. I run the InterACT Lab, where we focus on algorithms for human-AI interaction — algorithms that move beyond the agent’s function in isolation, and generate robot behavior that coordinates well with people, and is aligned with what we actually want the agent to do. We work across different applications, from robotics (assistive arms, quadrotors, autonomous cars), to recommender systems, to large language models, and draw from optimal control and decision theory, game theory, reinforcement learning, Bayesian inference, and cognitive science. I also helped found and serve on the steering committee for the Berkeley AI Research (BAIR) Lab, and am a co-PI of the Center for Human-Compatible AI. I’ve been honored by the Sloan Fellowship, MIT TR35, the Okawa award, an NSF CAREER award, and the PECASE award.
Why learn other languages? Why read poems? I will consider the fragmentary remains of the ancient Greek poet Sappho to argue for the value of both of these activities, for the ways in which they expand our understanding and show us different possibilities for human experience. I will focus on the poetics and gender politics of Sappho’s lyrics read in their historical context.
Week 4: Feb 9
Daedalus Drones, is a site-specific installation/performance work involving the partnership of three major cultural institutions in Hong Kong. The work was installed at the Asia Society of Hong Kong (here’s a link to the 3D video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiUQ-4y15IM&t=257s). The installation showed as a stand-alone installation for a week and was “instrumentalized” in the context of live performances. Towards the end of the hour-long performance, the audience encountered me, screaming with my megaphone. In the Hong Kong, post-2019, context, this is political commentary, the instrumentalization of surveillance technology (the drones), the architecture of confinement (fences) and the megaphone, the instrument of protest.
Ken Ueno is a composer, vocalist, sound artist, and author. His music and installations has been performed and installed around the world. He is known for inventing vocal techniques, composing “person-specific” music, instrumentalizing architecture, and for his activism in decolonizing classical music. As a vocalist, he has performed his concerto with orchestras in Boston, New York, Poland, Lithuania, Thailand, North Carolina, and California. Ueno’s writings have been published by the Oxford Handbook, the New York Times, Palgrave Macmillan, and Wiley & Sons. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and his bio appears in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. firstname.lastname@example.org
Week 5: Feb 16
What is the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe? Can we detect radio, infrared, or optical signals from other civilizations? Current and future SETI projects may provide an answer. Dan Werthimer will describe the rationale for past and future searches and how new technologies are revolutionizing SETI.
Dan Werthimer is Chief Scientist of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, co-founder of SETI@home, and principal investigator of CASPER, the Center for Astronomy Signal Processing and Electronics Research. Dan has testified to congress about SETI, holds the Drake Award for SETI research and the Carl Sagan Award for science popularization, and has published 250 books and papers. Dan was in the “Homebrew Computer Club” with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak; everyone in that club became ultra-rich, except Dan.
The computational theory of the mind is at the foundation of contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science. This lecture will introduce this theory, and the role that the notion of mental representation plays within it. Along the way, we will discuss an unexpected connection between mental representation and the question of whether the world has an objective structure independently of how we represent it.
Verónica Gómez Sánchez’s main research interests lie in the intersection of philosophy of science, metaphysics and cognitive science. Some of her recent work deals with the laws and vocabularies of the special sciences, and their relation to physics. She is also interested in the nature of intentionality and its role in computational explanations in cognitive science. She has recently completed a Bersoff Fellowship at NYU.
Week 6: Feb 23
I will discuss our current understanding of how the primate brain perceives the visual world, including how it represents faces and objects and how it creates a meaningful representation of a complex, dynamic scene.
Doris Tsao is a professor of biology at the University of California Berkeley and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She joined UC Berkeley in 2021, and prior to that was professor at Caltech from 2009-2021. She studied biology and mathematics at Caltech as an undergraduate and received her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard in 2002. Her central interest is in understanding the neural mechanisms underlying vision. Her lab seeks to understand how visual objects and actions are represented in the brain and how these representations are used to guide behavior. Her lab is investigating mechanisms at multiple stages in the visual hierarchy, from early processes for segmenting visual input into discrete objects, to mid- and high-level perceptual processes for assigning meaningful identity to specific objects, to processes by which these perceptual representations are integrated into coherent scene representations. Techniques used include: electrophysiology, fMRI, electrical microstimulation, optogenetics, anatomical tracing, psychophysics and mathematical modeling.
She has received multiple honors including the Sofia Kovalevskaya Award (2004), Eppendorf & Science International Prize in Neurobiology (2006), MacArthur Fellowship (2018). She was elected to the National Academy of Science in 2020.
Both policymakers and scholars alike are interested in how poor health in childhood could hurt school performance and adult job outcomes, but credible answers have been difficult to come by, especially in low-income societies. In this lecture, Prof. Miguel presents results from a project he has worked on for over 25 years to shed light on how deworming treatment in Kenyan schools — a safe and cheap public health intervention – has changed recipients’ life trajectories and the lives of the next generation. The experimental research approach pioneered in this study has had an impact on economics research methods, and the findings have influenced public policy decisions affecting hundreds of millions of children around the globe.
Edward Miguel is the Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics and Faculty Director of the Center for Effective Global Action at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 2000. He earned S.B. degrees in both Economics and Mathematics from MIT, received a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, where he was a National Science Foundation Fellow, and has been a visiting professor at Princeton University and Stanford University. Ted’s main research focus is African economic development, including work on the economic causes and consequences of violence; the impact of ethnic divisions on local collective action; interactions between health, education, environment, and productivity for the poor; and methods for transparency in social science research. He has conducted field work in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and India. He has published over 100 articles and chapters in leading academic journals and collected volumes, and his work has been cited over 40,000 times according to Google Scholar.
Week 7: Mar 1
Climate change is a global crisis of epic proportions that is threatening the future of life on our planet. It is also the biggest opportunity of your lifetime. To solve the climate change problem will require a portfolio of approaches across all sectors of our society to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and develop new approaches for living in a warmer and less predictable world. I will discuss my journey from a scientist whose work focused on describing the problem to our current research on the science of solutions to climate change. I will share the unlikely path we took and discuss some of the opportunities for the future.
The last two decades have seen unprecedented volatility in the US housing market. From the subprime boom to the foreclosure crisis, to the COVID pandemic and the new “work from home” era, the period between 2000 and 2022 has been characterized by cycles of boom, bust, and recovery, as well as government failures and policy successes. In this lecture, I’ll trace how both market trends and government actions (or inaction) over this time period have negatively impacted low-income households and communities of color, widening housing and wealth inequality. While there is growing attention to historical harms such as redlining, I will show that contemporary policies are equally complicit in preserving and deepening these housing inequities and argue for a bolder set of policies to ensure greater racial and social justice in housing.
Carolina K. Reid is the I. Donald Terner Distinguished Professor in Affordable Housing and Urban Policy in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley, and the Faculty Research Advisor at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation. Her current research projects include strategies to address homelessness in California, the role that subsidized housing plays in promoting economic mobility among low-income families, and the impact of discrimination in mortgage lending on the racial wealth gap. Her scholarship has been covered in national and international media, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and local outlets such as the Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, Carolina worked at the Center for Responsible Lending and at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She has a BA from Stanford University and an MA and PhD from the University of Washington, Seattle.
Week 8: Mar 8
Fundamental research to understand how bacteria fight viral infections uncovered the function of CRISPR-Cas programmable proteins that can induce precise changes in animal, plant and human DNA. I will discuss my professional journey to this breakthough and my current efforts to ensure safe and practical use of CRISPR technology in healthcare and agriculture.
How does someone get into cults? Which is, a slightly different question than, why does someone join a cult? We’ll talk about both: what a study of cults entails– questions of culture, history, philosophy, and desire– as well as what we might discover about why people seek out alternative spiritual and social communities. What is it that it might reveal about our own longings, our own search for transcendence?
Poulomi Saha is Associate Professor & co-Director of the Program in Critical Theory. They work at the intersections of Asian American studies, psychoanalytic critique, feminist and queer theory, and postcolonial studies. Their first book, “An Empire of Touch” was awarded the Harry Levin Prize for outstanding first book by the American Comparative Literature Association in 2020 and the Helen Tartar First Book Prize. They are currently at work on a new book on America’s long obsession with foreign spirituality and our own spiritual hungers.
Week 9: Mar 15
I was lured into physics by puzzlement and by joy. Many of us are puzzled by fundamental questions. Why are we here? Where did the universe come from? By probing Nature, we learn that it is far simpler, yet much crazier (farther from our everyday intuition) than we could have imagined. Understanding this is fun, and it blows your mind. I will describe some of the insights, both historical and recent, that have changed how we think about the physical world.
Raphael Bousso was born in Israel and grew up in Germany. Bousso earned his Ph.D. at Cambridge University; his doctoral advisor was Stephen Hawking. He did postdoctoral research at Stanford University and at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara. Bousso was a fellow at the Harvard University physics department and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Since 2002, he has been a professor in the physics department at UC Berkeley. In 2012, Bousso was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society “for fundamental discoveries in the field of quantum cosmology, including the covariant entropy bound and the string landscape.” He was appointed Chancellor’s Chair in Physics in 2022.
Seeking refuge by building an alternative movement, or nation, is how some black people in the past and present address exploitation, abuse, disrespect, and ultimately being discarded from the American populace. I will discuss my journey to explore black women’s experiences in black nationalist movements and why understanding them is a window onto patriarchy, capitalism, nuclear family, respectability politics, and longings to be loved.
Week 11: Apr 5
Energy consumption is the biggest source of human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The good news is that we already have many of the technologies we need to eliminate GHG emissions from our energy systems. The challenge lies in encouraging billions of households and firms to adopt and use these technologies.
Environmental economists think a lot about how to incentivize the investments and behavior changes we need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In this lecture, we’ll talk about the central role of energy prices. How we price energy will significantly determine how effectively we coordinate the clean energy transition and who will bear the costs. I will argue that mis-pricing of electricity, here in California and around the globe, is increasing the cost of power sector decarbonization and undermining efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. On a more positive note, I will explain how economic research is advancing some policy and pricing innovations that can support a more efficient, and more equitable, clean energy transition.
Meredith Fowlie holds the Class of 1935 Chair in Energy. She is a Professor in the ARE Department and Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. Meredith’s research focuses on the economics of the clean energy transition and climate change adaptation. This includes work on carbon market design and implementation, energy market regulation, wildfire risk mitigation, and renewable energy. When she is not teaching or working on research projects, she is actively engaged in advising climate policy design and implementation at the state and federal levels.
Week 12: Apr 12
How do people think about, and respond to, dangers in the world around them? Does anything change when a person’s goal is to enhance national, rather than individual, security? Can national security decision-making be improved? I will discuss how brain-based research into threat perception contributes to answering these questions, as well as the implications for national security decision-making.
Marika Landau-Wells is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California Berkeley. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an AB in Government from Harvard. Prior to joining UC Berkeley, she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the SaxeLab, a social cognitive neuroscience lab at MIT. Her research is broadly concerned with the effects of cognitive processes – including perception, attention, learning, and memory – on political behavior and decision-making. Currently, her research investigates the ways in which the psychological and neural underpinnings of threat perception influence policy preferences, with a particular focus on national security decision-making. She uses a variety of data sources including archival materials, observational and experimental studies, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Black holes are spectacular end products of the fatal attraction of gravity. Residing at the centers of galaxies, the biggest black holes in the universe have masses up to many billion suns. I will describe how simple black holes are, how difficult it is to find them, and what happens when two of them come together to form twins.
Chung-Pei Ma is the Judy Chandler Webb Professor in Physical Sciences and Professor of Astronomy and of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Her main research area is theoretical and observational extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. Dr. Ma uses luminous matter to investigate the dark components in the universe: dark matter, dark energy, and black holes. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Week 13: Apr 19
Carbon Dioxide is both friend and foe. We shall follow the life cycle of CO2 in the terrestrial biosphere, the oceans, the geosphere and the atmosphere, as well as recent perturbations of the carbon cycle. How do we know that the increase in atmospheric CO2 in the past 200 or so years is due to human activities? CO2 is the leader among the greenhouse gases in causing global warming. Can we slow the CO2 increase in the atmosphere and slow the warming?
Growing up in Hong Kong, Inez Fung like math and typhoons/hurricanes, as typhoons meant no school. Her PhD thesis used the mathematics of spiral galaxies to explain the spiral rainbands in hurriances. Inez’s research is in climate and the carbon cycle. More recently, with global warming and extreme weather events, the research is like playing chess with Nature – who changes the rules with every move.
Cathy Park Hong’s New York Times bestselling book of creative nonfiction, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, was published in Spring 2020 by One World/Random House. Minor Feelings was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, the American Book Award and earned her recognition on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021 list. She is also the author of poetry collections Engine Empire, published in 2012 by W.W. Norton, Dance Dance Revolution, chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Translating Mo’um. Hong is the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her prose and poetry have been published in the New York Times, New Republic, the Guardian, Paris Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. She earned her BA at Oberlin College, her MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop and is Professor and Class of 1936 First Chair in the College of Letters and Sciences in the English Department at UC Berkeley.
Week 14: Apr 26
Quantum mechanics is often presented as a mysterious subject and a source of paradoxes. However, working scientists view it as a phenomenally successful theory whose advent made many things about the world comprehensible. This talk starts with some highlights from the quantum picture of light-matter interaction, which enables enormous amounts of information to travel the world almost instantly. We then turn to how basic research at Berkeley on new kinds of quantum matter connects to global societal challenges, such as addressing climate change and creating computers that think either more or less like a human.
Joel Moore joined the physics department faculty as an assistant professor in January 2002. He received his A.B. summa cum laude in physics from Princeton University in 1995 and spent a Fulbright year abroad before graduate studies at MIT and a year at Bell Labs. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences (2022), a Simons Investigator (2013-2023), an elected Fellow of the American Physical Society (2013), and Chern-Simons Professor. He is also a Senior Faculty Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.