Class Day and Commencement

The stench of stale beer filled my nostrils. It hung over the straw-laden muddy ground like fog. The smell was a remnant of Reunions — Princeton’s three-day-long alcohol-fueled alumni soiree — that had ended two days ago.

Although it was barely eight o’clock on a Monday morning, there were already people exiting the Collegiate Gothic dormitories lining the sidewalk that I was following. These buildings adjacent to University Place are colloquially called “the slums,” though one wouldn’t guess it from their ostentatious façades. They receive this name because their interiors are unadorned, uncomfortable, and unairconditioned. Students who are unlucky in Princeton’s housing selection process or slept past their designated time to pick rooms are the poor souls condemned to live in them.

Upperclassmen party late and avoid morning classes like the plague. On any average early morning (i.e. before ten o’clock), there’s little activity in the slums. But not this morning. Today was Class Day. In 1856, the graduating seniors designated a day to celebrate and reflect upon their class’ achievements. There are ceremonies, speeches, food, and good old fashioned scholarly processions. Class Day is one of three celebratory days leading up to commencement during which Princeton showers students with awards and splendors to make amends for four years of unforgiving workloads.

Seniors were heading towards Nassau Hall for the day’s opening festivities. I unloaded my luggage in a rented townhouse off of Nassau Street and then hurried to Cannon Green. Upon walking through FitzRandolph Gate, I saw a sea of white folding chairs sprawled across Front Campus. They were arranged in neat arcs and rows like an army of soldiers facing Nassau Hall. All of them would be filled in twenty-four hours’ time for Commencement.

Cannon Green was a similar scene. Graduates’ friends and families were sitting in chairs enclosed by a white fence and stage. When the guest seats were filled, people crowded around the fence. When it became so crowded that you couldn’t see the stage while standing on the tips of your toes, people started to sit on the cool marble steps of Whig and Clio Halls. A bloc of seats in the middle of the field were left empty for the seniors. At ten o’clock, the Class of 2018 walked in.

Each student donned an orange and black Class Jackets, also named “beer jackets.” Starting in 1912, students wore jackets to protect their clothing from beer stains. What began as a silly practice then endured over the years, transforming into a tradition. Students in the graduating class design Class Jackets. They usually feature an obnoxious Princeton or tiger logo with orange trimming alongside the class’ year. Voluminous inside pockets are intended to secretly hold beer bottles. Alumni wear their beer jackets to Reunions until their twenty-fifth reunion, during which they receive Class Blazers.

Once the students were seated, the Class Day chairs gave some opening remarks. President Eisgruber delivered the subsequent address. He unveiled the class present — orange bicycle helmets — which he said would protect students from walking into one another when texting on their cell phones. He also presented the ceremonial key to the University as a gesture to welcome them back to Old Nassau at any point in the future.

Administrators presented high awards to students, and two “Class Heralds” gave humorous speeches that reflected on the class’ experience. Four people were bestowed honorary membership to the Class of 2018; among them were Professor Eddie Glaude and Tom Sparich, a longtime conductor of the Dinky.

Senator Cory Booker was the keynote speaker. In addition to defending New Jersey’s honor, he recounted his family’s struggles against racism and explained how small acts of kindness can touch lives across the country. His transcendental speech resonated was delivered with eloquence. If his upward political trajectory continues, I bet he’ll likely give a variation of this same speech at a Democratic National Convention in the near future.

The Class Day chairs said some final remarks. Everyone sang “Old Nassau.” Then, the students moved with the celerity of a racehorse toward Alexander beach for lunch.

I returned to Cannon Green in the afternoon to watch the hooding ceremony for advanced degrees. Graduate students in mortarboards and black robes with three felt stripes on their sleeves formed a queue on Chapel Drive. Faculty members wearing Tudor-style bonnets walked onto the stage and watched the graduate students proceed to their seats as classical music played in the background. This is what I originally thought Princeton would be like.

One by one, the students were called up to the stage in ascending order of their degrees. The Chief Marshal for University Convocations, who wore orange robes, tied a hood around their necks. Woodrow Wilson School students were the rowdiest bunch in the audience during applauses.

I walked down to Guyot Hall for the Department of Geosciences’ Class Day reception. I didn’t want to buy my own dinner that night, so I dined on the buffet. Seniors’ parents met professors during a cocktail hour before the main program. A professor announced the seniors’ names, awards, and thesis titles. The students shook hands with the faculty and received a departmental hat.

For the next few hours, I wandered around Princeton without purpose. I roamed through the expanses of Firestone Library and meandered between buildings that were older than the country.

By ten o’clock, I was seated in front of Blair Arch to watch the “Step Sing.” Classes sing several songs — a mix of old and new tunes — under Princeton’s iconic archway when they first arrive as freshmen and do so again during their penultimate day as seniors. This year, their songs included “Shut Up and Dance,” “Despacito,” “Castle On The Hill,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “The Orange and Black,” and “Going Back.” The Puerto Rican singers of “Despacito” probably never imagined when they first wrote their humble song that it would be sung in a century-old Ivy League tradition. After it finished, I walked back into town, past the deserted sidewalks of Nassau Street.

In the morning, I passed by FitzRandolph Gate. This time, police officers guarded the entrance to prevent outsiders from getting in. I still managed to get a glimpse. The stage was set and a white banner with the Princeton shield was unfurled over Nassau Hall’s doors. I couldn’t watch Commencement because I had to begin my summer job with a geology professor. When I went to Cannon Green for a lunch break around 12:30 pm, students in robes were exiting Front Campus and taking pictures next to buildings. They had finished four years of rigorous study. Now, they could revel in calling themselves Princeton graduates.

I strolled into “the slums” that evening. Twinkling white stars emerged from the dull blue hue of nautical twilight. Unlike the time of my arrival thirty-six hours ago, there was nobody in sight. But the acrid vapors of stale beer remained.

Photo Gallery

Prince Article 1, Prince Article 2

Advertisements

The Creation Museum

If the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.

— James Hutton, from “Theory of the Earth” (1788)

 

We crossed the Ohio River from Indiana and emerged into the knobby hills of northern Kentucky around nine o’clock in the morning. It was the second day of my geology class’ second field trip. Although we enjoyed looking at rocks along roadcuts, we were eager — no, ebullient — for our next stop: the Creation Museum. It’s an establishment dedicated to the proposition that God created the Earth in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago in accordance to literal interpretations of the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Our geology professor had been raving about its splendor for the entire semester. He’s an atheist but believes that it’s important for us to see things like this. After all, if we become geologists, we might as well be aware of the arguments that an influential sect of Christianity will use to discredit our research.

Two metal dinosaur silhouettes were mounted on white stone walls next to a country road off of I-275. They straddled the Creation Museum’s entrance. As our van pulled into the parking lot, I realized that the words “Princeton University Department of Geosciences” were painted on its front doors.

We walked through a huge garden before getting to the museum itself. There was a bog, koi pond, rainforest, and sculptures of dinosaur bones. A zipline crossed the pond that separated the garden from the main attraction.

Another dinosaur statue was in front of the museum. The semicircular concrete building had large dark windows between the pillars that supported its roof. Despite being the mecca of Christian fundamentalism, there were few signs indicating as such. Its exterior didn’t have a single cross, ichthus, dove, Bible verse, or picture of Jesus. If I hadn’t know better, I would have thought that this place was an art gallery or science museum.

The Creation Museum opened in 2007 after the Answers in Genesis (AiG) ministry raised $27 million for the construction of its 75,000 square foot facility. Ken Ham — a Christian fundamentalist — founded AiG. Ham started his career as a public schoolteacher in Brisbane, Australia. Schools’ teachings of evolution and rejection of the Bible appalled him. Over the following four decades, he established several creation research organizations. Ham said that he placed the museum in Petersburg, Kentucky because it is, “within one hour’s flight of 69 percent of America’s population.” According to the museum’s website, its purpose is to show, “why God’s infallible Word, rather than man’s faulty assumptions, is the place to begin if we want to make sense of our world.”

The museum has garnered unparalleled criticism from scientists and secularists. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, tweeted, “Visit the Creation Museum on YouTube http://bit.ly/1dxMhJM and marvel at human stupidity and the money that’s available to promote it.” Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, told The Charleston Gazette, “they try to confuse [kids] about what is science and what isn’t science.”

Bill Maher, a comedian on HBO, visited it while filming his movie “Religulous.” He snuck in for a surprise on-camera interview with Ham. Afterward, Ham said of the encounter, “The interview actually went well, even with Maher’s pointed and mocking questions.” Maher later said, “When you’re talking about…that Creation Museum where they put a saddle on the dinosaur because people rode dinosaurs. It’s just a pile of comedy that was waiting for someone to exploit.”

In 2014, Bill Nye, a science popularizer, debated Ham over the question, “Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?” in the Creation Museum. Nearly three million people watched the event online. Afterward, Ham used it as an opportunity to fundraise for the Ark Encounter — a $102 million life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark. Nye said the museum is, “bad for Kentucky, bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind.”

Upon walking into the Creation Museum, I saw paper Chinese lanterns and dragons hanging from the foyer’s ceiling. A sign on the wall explained that cultures around the world had legends about dragons. Their descriptions of dragons were similar to what is known about dinosaurs. Displays scattered throughout the museum told stories of human contact with dragons — and therefore dinosaurs. Among those who encountered them were Romans, Beowulf, St. George, and cowboys.

Although Genesis’ story of creation never changes, the exhibits in the museum do. Our professor had already visited the museum twice with previous geology classes. He said that there was no mention of dragons during the first visit and only a few posters with them in the second visit. The dinosaur-dragon connection grows bigger each year.

Then — like Jonah — we went into the belly of the beast.

From the outset, we passed through a forested exhibit that featured dinosaurs next to humans. The subsequent room marked the beginning of the argument for creationism.

A gregarious sun-kissed paleontologist wearing a Stetson hat appeared on a television screen. “I grew up fascinated by dinosaurs,” he said nostalgically, “I was taught that dinosaurs once ruled the world millions of years ago.” His story took a turn, “And then I learned that the Bible presented a very different history.” He introduced a fellow paleontologist — a meager nerdy man who lacked his compatriot’s adventurous allure. The first paleontologist said, “Today we study the same fossils, we use the same techniques, but that doesn’t mean we agree on what happened.”

The second paleontologist described in a reedy voice that he believes dinosaur fossils formed after dinosaurs died millions of years ago and were covered in river sediments. In contrast, the first paleontologist said he thinks that the fossils were created after dinosaurs died four thousand years ago in Noah’s flood. He finished, “We come to different conclusions because we’re at different starting points. I start with the Bible. My colleague does not.” There were at least ninety-five reasons why we — as geology students — would disagree with the video’s content. But nobody said a word.

The next room had posters that contrasted “Man’s Word” with “God’s Word.” One titled “Same Universe” showed the Big Bang Theory and the Nebular Hypothesis on its left side. On its right, it showed Genesis’ first four days of creation. Another proclaimed, “God’s Word is the key to the past, present, and future.” Posters in the following room presented perceived attacks against the Bible. Geology, astronomy, Hebrews’ idol worship, Catholic Middle Age traditions, and Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” all apparently disrespected God’s Word.

I then went into a room with bare brick walls of urban decay. Graffiti on one wall said, “Modern World Abandons the Bible.” Visitors peered into three windows with television screens displaying a post-Christian apocalypse. They had all of Middle America’s fears: pornography, violent video games, teenage pregnancy, and gossiping wives. An ominous voice in the background rattled off harrowing statistics, “Over 1.1 million marriages end in divorce.” Ten seconds later, “Over half of teenage girls have had sex before marriage.” At the end of the room, an actual wrecking ball labeled “Millions of Years” crashed into a church’s foundation.

The rest of the Creation Museum recounted biblical history from Genesis. We went to a walkthrough Garden of Eden exhibit. Adam was surrounded by animals from across the world: apes, gazelles, penguins, kangaroos, owls, deer, warthogs, toucans, and dinosaurs. “All the beasts of the Earth,” one sign said, “ate only plants.” In other words, all animals were originally vegan.

Next, God created a woman. Uncomfortably attractive wax figures of Adam and Eve lounged nude in Eden and swam in a strange flower-decorated love pond below a talking snake. They suddenly appeared ragged after eating the forbidden fruit. Signs listed how the world changed. Human conflict, animal overpopulation, poisonous plants, genetic mutations, cosmic ageing, meat eating, weeds, and the pain of childbirth all started as a result of Adam’s sin.

We walked on to learn about Noah’s Ark, which the museum said with laser-like precision was 510 feet long. A poster claimed that the divine flood covered the Earth in exactly 1.6 miles of water. The museum maintained that the water for the flood came from the mantle during volcanic eruptions, or, as Genesis puts it, “All the fountains of the great deep were broken up.”

The adjacent room was devoted entirely to debunking geological research proving that the Earth is millions of years old. Displays said that Noah’s Flood carved the Grand Canyon, an ice age occurred after the flood due to a cooling climate, and continents broke apart and rejoined multiple times within a year.

Radiometric dating hammers the final nail into Young Earth Creationism’s coffin. By measuring the concentration of daughter and parent isotopes of radionuclides within closed systems, geologists can determine rocks’ absolute age to within a few million years for those that are billions of years old. In 1956, Clair Patterson, a geochemist at the California Institute of Technology, dated the Earth to be 4.55 billion years old.

One exhibit told the story about how a creationist tried to undermine this method. In 1992, Steve Austin, a geologist from the Institute for Creation Research, collected volcanic rocks from Mount Saint Helens’ eruption in 1986. He sent the samples to a lab for K-Ar dating and was told that they were 340,000–2,800,000 years old. Austin said, “These ‘ages’ are, of course, preposterous,” so he concluded that radiometric dating is useless.

But his study had a critical flaw. The lab that analyzed his rocks warned it couldn’t accurately date rocks that were younger than 2 million years. Austin did the equivalent of using a thermometer with a range of 0–100 degrees to measure the temperature of a room that is -20 degrees. While the thermometer will give an incorrect temperature, it’s the scientist’s fault for not knowing how to make proper measurements. None of the Creation Museum’s exhibits mentioned the many errors that scientists have found in creationists’ research.

Evolution had its own special room. Creationists submit that microevolution — small changes within a species, such as humans’ ability to create dog breeds — exists. They don’t believe in macroevolution — change from one species to a different species. Microevolution, they said, can explain the diversity of species in the present world given the relatively few that were on the Ark.

We walked into another room that explained the consequences of questioning God’s Word. Racism, genocide, and abortion were caused by “Human Reason.” The Bible, though, proves that all humans are related to Adam and Eve, so they are of a single race. “If Adam and Eve were middle brown,” one poster said, “their children could have exhibited the whole range of skin tones from light to dark.” Above the text was a picture showing two parents of purported “middle brown” complexion beside their baby twins — one black and the other white.

The museum repeated itself frequently. It emphasized multiple times that the Bible contained truth, and evolutionary thinking caused societal problems. The final line of posters told stories about Jesus’ life. Only those who accept him as their Savior will, “dwell eternally with Him in the new heavens and new earth.”

There were a lot of references to Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary throughout the Creation Museum. Princeton — even over Harvard and Yale — was portrayed as the elite liberal institution destroying Americans’ faith in God. After some research, I learned that Princeton has a lengthy history with the creation debate.

In 1874, Charles Hodge, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, published “What is Darwinism?” in which he rejected evolution and equated it to atheism. A leisurely stroll away, James McCosh, the president of Princeton University, gave lectures on the compatibility of evolution and religion.

Arnold Guyot, a geologist who founded Princeton’s Department of Geosciences, rejected Darwin’s theory. He tried to align Genesis’ days of creation with the geologic ages in his book, published in 1884, “Creation.” Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, appointed Edwin Grant Conklin, a rising embryologist, to the school’s faculty in 1908. During his career, Conklin gave over a thousand lectures in defense of evolution.

By the mid-twentieth century, Young Earth Creationism was on its deathbed. Evangelical Christians were either taking it underground or abandoning it in favor of other beliefs. But that all changed when John Whitcomb ’48 coauthored “The Genesis Flood” — a book claiming that the geologic record substantiated Noah’s Flood. It ignited the modern Young Earth Creationist movement. Ken Ham called Whitcomb, “a hero of the faith.” Neither the Creation Museum nor Answers in Genesis would have been possible had it not been for his book.

John Baumgardner GS’70, a retired computational physicist from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was on the forefront of creationist research. He created a computer model demonstrating that catastrophic plate tectonics played a role in the global flood cataclysm. On the other side of the debate, Davis Young ’62, a retired geology professor at Calvin College, has written articles against Young Earth Creationism for BioLogos, a Christian organization that supports evolution.

More recently, Tyler Simko ‘18 decried the Creation Museum in 2013 on his blog “Quantumaniac.” Ken Ham read his post and didn’t like it, so he wrote a response on his own Answers in Genesis blog. He claimed that Simko lied about the museum and had never visited it. Simko replied in another post, “messages that I have received from many of [Ham’s] supporters have been anything but respectful.” To be fair, his original post had some false statements, such as, “there are guards present to suppress criticism and nonbelievers.”

Today, there aren’t any professors at the University or Seminary who are actively involved in the creation debate. But plenty conduct research verifying that the Earth is very old and Genesis doesn’t record a literal history of the world.

At the end of the exhibits, my class entered the museum’s gift shop. A book titled “Already Compromised” caught my attention. The summary on its back cover said, “Examine the beginnings of the Ivy League schools and their now forgotten purpose at their formation.” I was intrigued and flipped through its first few pages.

There was a section devoted entirely to Princeton. It told the story of the school’s abandonment from religious education as if it were Lucifer falling from heaven. The authors lamented, “liberal theologians had an open door to influence the university as it became a ‘modern’ institution,” and consequently it, “was eroded by secularization.”

The Creation Museum was a fun sideshow on the fieldtrip. But it didn’t convince me that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Perhaps that’s because I’m “already compromised.”

 

 

Photo Gallery

Daily Princetonian article

(If Ken Ham stumbles upon my blog, I will admit that there may be some minor inaccuracies in my portrayal of the Creation Museum due to the difficulty of fact-checking without editors, not a malevolent intent to mislead readers.)

The Scheide Library

IMG_2956

Firestone Library contains several million volumes spread across 70 miles of bookshelves within its gargantuan gothic structure. Despite being one of the world’s largest collegiate libraries, most students barely explore its 430,000 square feet of books, manuscripts, artifacts, and microfilms. The lacquered wooden walls of the Scheide Library — a collection of rare books — caught my attention last year when I was poking around Firestone’s subterranean C Floor. I had to write an article for my journalism class, so I decided to investigate Princeton’s priceless treasures.

In 1865, William Taylor Scheide started collecting books when he was 18 and later made a fortune as a Standard Oil tycoonBut his son, John Hinsdale Scheide, Princeton Class of 1896, was the bibliophile primarily responsible for amassing most of the collection’s present 2,500 items. He built a private library in his family’s Titusville, Pennsylvania home for them. John’s son, William“Bill” Hurd Scheide, Princeton Class of 1936, naturally continued his family’s hobby. He moved the library to Firestone in 1959 under the condition that the space in which his books were housed would be an exact replica of his Titusville library. Upon his death in 2014, Scheide bequeathed his family’s books — valued at $300 million — to Princeton University. It’s the largest donation in the school’s history.  

I walked to Firestone Library after class and descended into its bowels. Two librarians greeted me in the Rare Books and Special Collections’ glass vestibule. They shepherded me into the Scheide Library.

It’s Old English interior didn’t spare a single luxury. The walls to one side of the entrance were adorned with carvings of the earliest forms of communication, starting with the Egyptians’ papyrus. On the other side were ten-foot-tall bookshelves perpendicular to the walls. All of the books were stacked more neatly than a box of dominoes behind glass cases. At the end of the bookshelves were spherical lightbulbs mounted on top of faux candlestick holders. The mahogany walls seemed to absorb their light.

In the back, a wrought iron chandelier with six of the same lights hung above a sixteenth century English table. Bill Scheide’s original desk flanked it. A fireplace was embedded in the wall next to the desk. Three portraits of the Scheides were above it. I spotted a photograph of the original Titusville library on the fireplace mantle. The room in which I was standing looked exactly the same as the one in the picture.

The far wall had white stained glass windows that were decorated with printer’s marks of early European printers. Although we were nearly fifty feet underground, lights illuminated the windows, giving the illusion of a sunny day outside. Busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were in front of it.

When I sat down at the English table, one of the librarians handed me a book. Its cover was plain and dark brown like coffee. My hands wrapped around the book’s short width. Thick black letters were spaced equally along pages that yellowed toward their edges. Its title page said “Paradise Regain’d John Milton.” The librarian told me that it was a first edition from over 340 years ago.

The Scheide Library contains an impressive array of rare books, some of which can’t even be found in Europe. One librarian handed a catalogue of the library’s contents to me. Latin titles dominated its pages. Among the library’s contents are the first six printed editions of the Bible (including the famed Gutenberg Bible), an original printing of the Declaration of Independence, a handwritten speech on slavery by Abraham Lincoln, and first editions of Dante and Milton. The most valuable items are stored in a climate-controlled vault.  

As I flipped through Paradise Regain’d‘s pages, a librarian showed me all of its unique characteristics. Old books have often been out in the world for over a century and display signs of their histories. Prior owners leave bookplates — decorative labels — on their first few pages. Damaged or heavily used books are rebound, thereby shortening their pages. A page in the back of Paradise Regain’d listed all of the printing mistakes in it. During the early days of printing, printers would notice an error, stop production, fixed the printing plates, and then resumed production. They didn’t waste the books that were already printed, so they sold them anyways. Occasionally, owners corrected the misprints in ink throughout a book. Historians sometimes look at people’s books to find the notes that the wrote in them. These little scribblings help them piece together a person’s intellectual history.

A librarian led me to the main reading room. It’s a narrow corridor between Firestone’s original exterior wall from 1948 and its 1988 addition. An electrochromatic glass ceiling controlled the amount of sunlight that entered the room. Although there were at least a dozen long tables, only two researchers were reading books at that time. Security cameras watched the ends of every table. I had visited the Rare Books and Special Collections reading room four months earlier when I was researching writing styles for my application essay to this journalism class.

We walked back to the Scheide Library. The other librarian had pulled out another book and placed it on foam blocks. It was at least one and a half feet long by one foot wide and at least four inches thick. He said that it is called an “incunabula” — a Latin term used to designate books were printed before 1501. This particular book was Ptolemy’s Geographia. As I continued to marvel at it, a librarian flipped through its pages to find the printing date.

Latin text in Roman font was printed alongside diagrams that displayed Ptolemy’s methods for mapping the world. A picture on one page consisted of a man holding a globe, disproving the popular belief that early Europeans thought the world was flat. Woodcuts decorated the first page of each chapter. One of them showed Pope Paul II receiving a book. Engravers spent weeks cutting away the negative outline of an image on a wooden planks before they pressed them onto pages. These particular woodcuts had all been hand painted and lined with gold leafing.

The book was several centuries old, but the librarians didn’t handle it with gloves. They said that gloves make hands become insensitive, which increase the probability that someone tears a page or drops the book. While bare hands have oils that aren’t necessarily good for paper, they cause less damage in the long-run than gloved hands.

A map sprawled across two pages at the back of the book. It was a crude drawing of Afroeurasia from antiquity. All of the world’s oceans were enclosed by land. Romans had traveled as far east as China but hadn’t pierced the Tropic of Capricorn to the south. Small heads with long golden locks of hair blew wind onto the world. Scrolled yellow banners listed the names of geographic places. “PRA S ODUME,” “ETHIOPIA INTERIOR,” and “TERRA INCOGNITA” marked the ecumene’s edge. The Americas, Antarctica, and Pacific Ocean were nonexistent.

By this time, the librarian still hadn’t found the printing date. In one last attempt, he flipped to the final pages in the back. “Here it is,” he exclaimed. Near the colophon were the words “Anno MCCCC LXXXII.” The book was printed in 1482.

Photo Gallery

Weeks in Review 4/15-5/18/18

Monday— I hosted two students from New Jersey and New York City for the second round of Princeton Preview.

Thursday— I attended a James Madison Program dinner in Prospect House about social media usage and personal identity in politics.

Friday— A Red Bull marketing representative placed cans of the company’s signature drink under every chair in McCosh 50, the school’s largest lecture hall.

There was a party in McCosh courtyard for major declaration. Each department has an orange and black banner in front of which students take pictures. Some — like the Woodrow Wilson School — had long lines of students in front of them. Others were empty. Since there are only ten geosciences students in the Class of 2020, I sent an e-mail in the morning to try to get all of them to meet at the same time. Seven came. I also noticed a lot of students from other majors taking joke pictures with rocks by the GEO banner.

Saturday— The Interclub Council hosted its annual Truckfest event. Food trucks from around the region set up along Prospect Avenue for several hours. All of the proceeds went to charity.

Monday— Several journalists visited my writing class. They had taken the same class and graduated from Princeton within the past fifteen years. Two of them were from Wilmington, Delaware.

Tuesday— The faculty approved a new academic calendar that shifts exams before winter break. This vote marks the first substantial change to the calendar since the 1940s. The new calendar will take effect the year after I graduate.

Thursday— I went to a group dinner with Peter Wendell ’72, the donor of my dorm “Wendell B.” After graduating from Princeton, he entered venture capitalism and grew his firm, Sierra Ventures, for 30 years. It has invested $1.5 billion into technology companies. During the conversation, he mentioned a juicy bit of Princeton lore. Meg Whitman ’77 — the former CEO of eBay — allegedly didn’t like her roommate at Princeton. When she donated money for the construction of Whitman College, she specified that it needed a lot of single rooms so that future students didn’t have to live with roommates. Thanks Meg.

Friday— St Edmund Hall, a college of the University of Oxford, accepted me for study abroad in the spring of 2019. I will take three geology tutorials and one French tutorial. Perhaps I can be like Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and call myself an “Oxford man” when I return after only five months.

Saturday— I set up the arrangements on campus for a community group’s speech contest and was a judge for its speakers.

In the evening, I went to the Triangle Club’s show. Unlike its fall performance, the spring program is a collection of short skits and songs.

Sunday— I took a few students to do trail work near Washington Crossing State Park.

Monday— I went to a presentation by Stephen Schwarzman about the Schwarzman Scholars program. Schwarzman is the chairman and CEO of The Blackstone Group. He is worth $12.5 billion and is heavily involved with philanthropy. The Schwarzman Scholars program pays for approximately 100 students to earn a Masters in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University, China’s most prestigious college.

Wednesday— I went to an entrepreneurship lecture by Woody Hines ’12, the co-founder of Hillflint. His company makes woven sweaters with classic collegiate logos. At Princeton, each class designs a sweater with its year on the front (e.g.- “2020” or “2019”). Although Hillflint isn’t even a decade old, it’s already disrupting the sportswear market.

Thursday— I went to a lecture by Vic Mensa, a popular rapper, in McCosh 50. He talked about his upbringing in Chicago and social justice. His latest cause has been speaking out against Israelis’ brutal treatment of Palestinians.

Friday— The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students provided a comedy show. It featured Joel Kim Booster and Dolcé Sloan from “The Daily Show.”

Saturday— At night, I went to a jazz concert by Eddie Palmieri, a Grammy Award-winning pianist. He is best known for popularizing latin jazz.

Sunday— The eating clubs held Lawnparties. I had to work on a Spanish paper the entire day, so I didn’t see much of them. The headliner was Vince Staples, an up-and-coming rapper.

Tuesday— I went to a James Madison Program lecture about capitalism and Catholicism.

Wednesday— I went to a James Madison Program lecture about the Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission Supreme Court case. Half of the panel argued for each side. John Corvino, a prominent professor who has been described as “The Gay Moralist,” argued why the cake baker broke Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. Ryan Anderson ’04, a researcher at The Heritage Foundation, and Sherif Girgis ’08, a Rhodes Scholar from Dover, Delaware, defended the need for religious freedom even when it results in the denial of services to same sex couples.

Monday— I played with the Princeton University Band for its Dean’s Date Eve performance. We marched through the libraries and Frist Campus Center playing various songs. The students in the Julian Street Library — Princeton’s saddest library — didn’t seem impressed.

Whitman College served a late night breakfast, and I went to the Holder Courtyard for the Holder Howl at midnight.

Tuesday— I played with the band at the Dean’s Date celebration in McCosh Courtyard. It was hot.

A double rainbow appeared over Princeton around dusk. I think it was a sign of mercy from the dean.

Wednesday— I met a student from the Princeton Theological Seminary for lunch at the Rockefeller dining hall.

Friday— After completing all of my exams, I went to New York City for the day. First, I stopped at the Explorers Club. Its top floor had a gallery of past club presidents and a room with trophies from foreign lands. The ground floor had a comfortable members’ lounge. Then, I went to the Guggenheim Museum. Most of of it was under construction because workers were installing a new exhibit that will span the entire helical ramp. To finish the day, I ate lunch at the Princeton Club of New York. It served the same waffle fries as Princeton. I guess alumni get nostalgic about those things.

In the late afternoon, I went to the Nassau Inn for a Daily Princetonian reception before moving out of my dorm.

 

That’s how the year wraps up. It’s strange to think that I’m halfway done with my time at Princeton. But the hardest part is still yet to come.

Photo Gallery

 

Weeks in Review 3/28-4/14/18

The second half of the spring semester is a never-ending grind. All classes go full throttle for six weeks until the year’s end. Fortunately, there are a lot of other events to punctuate the monotony.

Tuesday— While my geosciences class was in Australia, an armed man had a standoff with police in the Panera on Nassau Street. It is less than fifty yards from the University’s campus. After five hours of negotiations, the police killed the man. They identified him as a resident of Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Later, security camera footage showed that he only had a BB gun but brandished it toward the police as if he had an actual firearm.

Saturday— A deer jumped into Wu dining hall. It walked around the building and surprised students. The deer eventually ran out on its own. This break-in came almost a year after a deer crashed into Forbes College.

Monday— Maya Lin, a New York City-based architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, visited my writing class for a group interview. We me her at the Lewis Center for the Arts. She is building a new landscape sculpture between the Lewis Center, New South, and Baker Rink. When completed, it will be a raised grassy ridge that snakes between several trees. There even might be a water table. Passersby are encouraged to touch her works. She said that her sculptures are made to change people’s perspective or make them stop and think for a moment. Despite the fact that her works are venerated by the public, she had a very down-to-earth attitude and took the time to give insightful responses to our questions.

Tuesday— I went to a Princeton Environmental Institute lecture about climate records from ice cores.

Wednesday— I attended a promotional lecture for the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program. It is a scholarship for college students who demonstrate exceptional leadership potential. The program funds the first three years of any graduate program — from Ph.D.s to law degrees — at Stanford University. The program is named after Phil Knight, the founder and CEO of Nike, and John Hennessy, the immediate past president of Stanford.

Hennessy delivered the presentation. He used it as an opportunity to also promote Stanford. As I listened, I couldn’t help but notice that he sounded like an entrepreneur. He explained how students were starting nonprofit organizations or businesses, and he used buzzwords like “collaborate” and “globalization.” In contrast, President Eisgruber’s Princeton pitch emphasizes dedicated scholarship and the pursuit of truth. It’s a lofty speech that’s fitting for a school of spires and gargoyles. Perhaps this represents a difference between east and west coast colleges.

My article was published in the “Prince.” I wrote it in response to a column from the previous week.

There is a new Kardashian Klub that imitates the Kardashian’s lifestyle. It is currently trying to get one of the Kardashians to give a speech at Princeton.

Thursday— I declared geosciences as my major by clicking a few buttons on a website. It was anticlimactic.

I went to a lecture on cryptocurrency by Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In short, a cryptocurrency is like a digital form of money. Bitcoin is a notable example of one. Clayton said that cryptocurrencies are highly unregulated and that investors should avoid them because of their numerous scams.

Later, I attended a group dinner in Whitman College with Anthony Yoseloff ’96, the CEO of Davidson Kempner Capital Management. Yoseloff is a big donor to Princeton and has a dorm named for him in Butler College. He has also served on the board of directors for PRINCO, the organization that manages the school’s endowment.

Friday— I worked on the staff for Princeton Debate Panel’s Adlai E. Stevenson Memorial Debate Tournament. There were debate teams from across the country, and they elected the circuit’s officers on Friday evening. I hosted four debaters from Brown University in my dorm.

I met a friend for dinner at the Quadrangle Club.

Sunday— I took several students for trail work at the Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve. The weather was perfect for being outdoors.

Monday— Peter Hessler ’92, a writer for National Geographic and The New Yorker, visited my writing class. He graduated from Princeton and went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Afterward, he taught English in rural China for two years with the Peace Corps. Upon return to the U.S., he wrote the book “River Town.” Since then, he has published several other books about China. Hessler later moved to Cairo and wrote about Egypt. He currently has plans to return to China.

I hosted two students from Oregon and Pennsylvania for Princeton Preview.

Tuesday— I went to a geosciences lecture on oceanic plankton off of the California coast.

I had dinner at Cloister Inn with a friend from my fall geosciences class. The eating club was serving “Moroccan tajine.” We agreed that it wasn’t as good as the real thing.

Wednesday— The James Madison Program hosted Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, for a private lecture with Professor Robert George. He discussed everything from Trump to Catholicism. Douthat wrote “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class,” which has been considered the Harvard equivalent of William F. Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale.” Both conservatives lampoon the liberal elitism at their alma maters. Who’ll write the same about Princeton?

Students across campus could be seen furiously swiping right on their cell phones throughout the week. They were competing on Tinder to win a concert by Cardi B. Tinder is a mobile phone-based dating app that is notorious for fueling casual sex. Cardi B is a stripper turned rapper who is popular with college students. Tinder agreed to provide a concert to the school with the most right swipes. Princeton entered the final round of the competition but ultimately did not win. The dating app has been criticized for harvesting data from users’ matches, and I suspect that this game was a ploy to collect more data from users. Last year, Princeton ranked last among the Ivy League for Tinder matches. Simple Google searches on other schools in the final round also yields articles about their lack of Tinder activity. This competition probably temporarily boosted the number of people joining the app and then drew them in.

Thursday— I went to Kentucky for a geosciences field trip.

Friday— As spring arrives at Princeton, temperatures warm, and students get drunk on Sunday afternoons. These “Sunday Funday” celebrations are popular among upperclassmen but not for everyone else. Intoxicated students often go into the dining halls for dinner and cause a ruckus. This week, a dean from my college sent an e-mail that threatened to post campus security guards in the dining hall if students didn’t calm down on their own.

 

Photo Gallery

Kentucky Field Trip

The types of sediment and the manner in which they are produced provides much information about past climates and natural events. But geologists can know about the Earth’s history only if sediments are preserved in the rock record. A pile of sediments left on a flat, stable surface would eventually be scattered about by erosion. Preservation requires that they be deposited in a basin. Wind, water, and gravity generally pull them downward to the lowest point in a region. Once deposited in a low-lying area, sediments will continue to pile on top of each other until the basin is filled or subsequent tectonic activity exhumes them.

There are three primary ways that basins form:

  • Rifting- Upwelling from the mantle forces tectonic plates apart from a common rift. The stress from the spreading causes the crust to fracture, thus creating fault blocks. Sediments fill in the depressions between them.
  • Thermal Subsidence- After rifting, mantle material flows upward into spaces between the fault blocks’ undersides. Contact with the relatively cold crust cools the material, and it contracts. As a result, the crust directly above it sinks, creating more space for sediment deposition.
  • Flexure- Small concentrated loads — such as a mountain — elastically bend rigid crust like a wooden beam. A slight upward bulge forms a certain distance  away from the load. The trench between this “forebulge” and the mountain is called a “foreland basin,” which collects sediment.

Geologists determine basin types in the rock record by studying the shapes and thicknesses of sediment beds in cross-section diagrams. By piecing together the way in which sediments were preserved, they can also learn about the history of mountains.

The Iapetus oceanic plate collided with the North American plate over 440 million years ago in Ordovician times. Although the Iapetus plate started to subduct, the pressure from the collision uplifted the land along the margin, creating the early Appalachians. Subsequent plate collisions occurred during the following 250 million years until Pangea was fully formed over 230 million years ago. At their peak, the Appalachians are hypothesized to have been as tall as the Himalayan Mountains. But erosion wore them down into the rounded hills that they are today.

Rock outcrops in the western Appalachian foothills contain sediments from all three types basins. My sedimentology class traveled to eastern Kentucky for an extended weekend to learn about basins during the formation of the Appalachian Mountains.

Day 1— Everyone met on the western side of Guyot Hall at Noon on Thursday. We loaded our equipment into a van and drove westward for ten hours.

The flat coastal plains of New Jersey rose into the Appalachians of Pennsylvania. We passed neat dairy farms surrounded by green pastures and hillsides stripped of trees by loggers. There was a large “Trump” sign in the style of the famous Hollywood sign on a mountainside overlooking the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Across the Ohio border, pumpjacks seesawed in the dusk as they pulled oil from Silurian sandstones. We arrived in Lawrenceburg, Indiana around 11:00 pm to stop for the night at a riverfront hotel.

Day 2— In the morning, I walked along the Ohio River. A marker mentioned that Abraham Lincoln had made a speech near that spot in 1861 while enroute to his inauguration. After breakfast, we stopped at a roadcut just outside of towns. A roadcut is the rock wall that’s created when engineers build a road by shearing off the side of a mountain.

This first roadcut was conveniently V-shaped with regular terraces protruding every ten vertical feet. Each of us examined the rock layers and climbed up the slope at our own paces for an hour. The rocks’ sediments were fresh as if they were pressed yesterday. Rain from the prior night had moistened them. Grey carbonate mud oozed out from crevices. Several students found fossils of nautiloids, bryozoans, crinoids, and brachiopods.

Eventually, we realized that the strata had a cyclical pattern. It started with a terrace containing fossilized shells and then progressed to rocks with muddy sediments, limestones interbedded with marls, and capped by very thick carbonate beds before repeating itself all over again. Our professor said that we were looking at shallowing upward parasequences. Geologist interpreted this pattern to signify decreases in sea level.

There are two primary mechanisms that create sea level fall in the geologic record. The first is an advancing shoreline. If one were to measure the water height at a geographic location as the shore moves seaward, it would appear that the water is becoming shallower even though this is only a local trend. The second is global sea level change induced by the growth of polar ice caps, in essence global cooling.

Siliciclastic grains in some of the layers showed that raised inland rocks had been weathered and transported out to sea. The beds of this roadcut were deposited during rifting when the peaks of rift blocks were eroding.

We toured the Creation Museum for a few hours before returning to real geology.

The next roadcut looked like the previous one except there were few large fossils, terraces were poorly preserved, and the upper carbonate layers were thicker. These signs indicated that the sediments were deposited either during thermal subsidence or on top of a forebulge. We wouldn’t know for certain until we looked at the rocks in a different location.

We drove to a small roadcut near a winding road that passed a bright white church on a hilltop. The bottommost layer was a paleosol, an ancient soil. It was colored red, yellow, and green from the various organic contents within it and the redox reactions that they underwent. From this layer, we deduced that the area was once emergent, that is above water. Dolomite — chemically altered carbonate rock — was above the paleosol. Both of these layers meant that they formed at the top of a forebulge.

The final roadcut of the day was next to a neighborhood of mobile homes. We climbed onto a shelf of white flakes falling from a rock bed eight feet above us. They crunched beneath our feet. Under a lens, I saw that the flakes were composed of very small grains. When cracked, their interiors were dark. “This is the shaliest shale that’s ever shaled,” a graduate student said. The rock was black shale. It usually forms from fine mud particles settling in calm deep water. This area was in the foreland basin between the forebulge and mountain-building front.

We reached our campground in Daniel Boone National Forest before sunset. Our professor cooked dinner, and we ate s’mores for dessert.

Day 3— We spent the entire day looking at a roadcut along Route 23 near the Kentucky-Virginia border. The Kentucky Department of Transportation created the Pound Gap roadcut in 1998 when it removed 243 million cubic feet of rock to build a bypass. This $53 million span of road was the most expensive highway project in the state’s history. Geologists at Western Kentucky University have since called the 2,000 feet of stratigraphic section that it exposed, “one of the most remarkable exposures of rock in the entire eastern United States.”

All of us were dropped off along the highway and instructed to progress along the wall at our own pace. Black shale — the same bed that we analyzed the previous day — was at the base of the rock sequence. It was overlaid by alternating marl and limestone beds, signs of a continental shelf. As I moved along, I noticed that turbidites — sandstone layers deposited by grain avalanches — occasionally cut between them. The frequency of turbidites steadily increased farther up the sequence until I came upon a section of solid sandstone. Shale appeared shortly thereafter. By one o’clock, I had reached a red paleosol.

At lunch, the class discussed its observations and put together an interpretation to explain the layers. We thought that they represented a progression from deep water up to a river delta’s surface.

I walked onward after lunch and ran into a limestone monolith. Some slight differences were present between the following limestone beds. A few had ooids — spherical carbonate sand grains. Others had shells. Waves also left their mark. Thin layers of coarse grains alternating with layers of thin grains were indicative of winnowing currents like that of water sloshing back into the sea. Ripped up chunks of rock within beds were deposited by waves too. Marl beds returned between the limestone. Preserved mud cracks — evidence of emergence — were in several carbonate beds.

But then there was a sudden transition to black shale. Unlike the previous shale, this one had sandstone beds cutting through it. A river avulsed, leaving behind a bed of mud. I was in a past floodplain — a flat area where meandering rivers sweep across long erosional arcs over thousands of years.

The day was nearing its end, so our professor hurried us along. We passed subsequent thick coal and shale deposits. Finally, we arrived at the pièce de résistance. Thick cross-bedded sandstones were separated by mud drapes. On top of them were thick mud layers that were followed by more thick sandstones. Our professor told us to count the number of beds within the sand and mud clusters. There were seven beds in each of the five clusters.  They were tidal rhythmites. Strong spring tides deposited heavy sands for seven days, and weak neap tides could only transport small mud sediments. In short, these rocks recorded tides from more than 300 million years ago.

We left because it was getting dark. Rain pelted our van by the time we returned to our campground. I built a fire, and we roasted marshmallows in it.

Day 4— It was raining heavily in the morning, so we simply left without looking at another outcrop. We drove to the east into central West Virginia, turned northward until Pennsylvania, and continued eastward to Princeton. I returned to my dorm just in time for dinner.

 

Photo Gallery

Expedition to Australia

DSC04969

Introduction

Wind, water, plants, heat, and gravity are constantly pounding, splitting, cracking, and pulling rocks. Little by little, they break down the rock into smaller pieces called “sediments.” They are transported away to varying distances and deposited in calm environments. Sediments pile on top of each other — layer after layer — as time progresses. Eventually, the pressure from subsequent layers is sufficiently strong to turn lower sediment layers into rock. The type of sediments, nature in which they were deposited, and chemical signatures that they record can provide information about the Earth’s climate at the time of deposition.

Sediments are the primary source of climate data for the years before 1960. Most famously, ice cores provide the best climatic records. Snowflakes fall onto glaciers. Their irregular shapes create gaps between individual flakes, thus trapping a small chamber of air from when they fell. Climatologists drill ice cores and analyze these air pockets to determine the state of Earth’s climate in the past.

But the oldest ice cores go back only 5 million years. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Deep sea cores of ocean sediments reach 130 million years before present. Tectonic activity destroys oceanic plates via subduction that are older. To see even further back in the Earth’s climate history, geologists study rocks made of the chemical compound carbonate (CO3).

Repetitive sequences of carbonate rock layers are scattered throughout the rock record. Geologist have interpreted these layers to represent fluctuations in sea level. But few study how carbonate rocks are forming in the present to understand if these layers actually record sea level change.

These issues form the basis of my sedimentology class. For spring break, we traveled to western Australia to study the preservation of sea level in sedimentary rocks.

Field Trip

Day 1-2— I left my dorm at 4:30 AM. The campus was dead quiet. My class lined up on Ivy Lane to take a bus to John F. Kennedy International Airport. We flew for 12 hours on an Emirates flight to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Emirates is renowned for satisfying customers, and it didn’t disappoint. It provided good food, frequent refills on drinks, cushy seats with slightly more room, a high-tech entertainment system, and a packet with socks and a sleeping mask. There’s no way that any of the American airlines can compare with their amenities. None of the crew were American, and all of the flight attendants were women.

As we were descending into Dubai, I saw the Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world — rise out of the brown desert haze. It was a shiny needle shooting 2,700 feet into the sky, four times taller than the other buildings around it. Several manmade islands dotted the city’s coast.

We rushed to our next flight because our first one had landed late. The airport was more of a shopping mall than an airport. Stores from the finest European brands lined the walls next to globalized American chainstores. The vaulted ceiling was three stories high. Upper levels had lounges and crew quarters. Fifty-foot tall windows arced to a central ridge, providing a full view of the city skyline. There were people from across the Afro-Eurasian landmass: Europeans, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and east Africans.

Our second flight lasted ten hours as it traversed the Indian Ocean toward Perth, Australia. The flight line from New York City to Perth is one of the longest in the world because the Australian city is near New York’s antipodes — the point on the opposite side of the Earth from another point. We arrived in Australia after midnight and stayed in a hotel north of Perth. Our room had a magnificent view of an Ikea warehouse across the street.

Day 3— We left the hotel and ate breakfast at a nearby café. Australians drive on the left side of the road, so our driver — a woman who was recently admitted to Princeton’s graduate school — had to adjust herself to the new rules of the road. Then, our nine-hour drive northward to Shark Bay began. Wide open Mediterranean scrubland soon turned into barren red desert. Dead kangaroos laid at the roadside every ten miles or less. Eventually, we drove parallel to the Indian Ocean. Its azure waves lapped up to the sparkling sandy shores. Towering white sand dunes were one half mile inland, slowly marching to the sea under the wind.

We stopped to shop for food in Geraldton, a town that is halfway between Perth and Shark Bay. It was small and industrial. There was a Hungry Jack’s next to a Target. “Hungry Jack’s” is the official name of Burger King in Australia. When the hamburger chain moved to the continent in the 1970s, another store had already trademarked the name “Burger King,” so the Australian franchisee chose another name. Hungry Jack’s is the second largest Burger King franchise in the world.

We arrived at Shark Bay around 8:00 PM. Our campsite was located on a beach within the Carbla homestead. Shark Bay is a national park, but several families were grandfathered into conditions that permit them to hold land on centurylong leases.

The Milky Way glowed above us as we set up our tents. The wind was warm and the waves gentle.

Day 4— I awoke by accident at 3:30 AM and saw a fantastic spectacle. Summer constellations had risen above the horizon. The brilliant white galactic core in Sagittarius was approaching the zenith. All was quiet. Not even the wind blew. The yellow eyes of quarter-sized spiders glittered on the hillside under my headlamp. I took some pictures and went back to bed.

Once the sun rose, the air warmed quickly. The ocean turned from plain blue to a sparkling turquoise. Small black flies swarmed around my head. They didn’t bite, but they were very annoying.

Our professor gave us a tour of the landscape. We first descended down several terraces of 1-2 meters in height that marked past shorelines when the sea level was higher. We then waded into the water to make additional observations. The water felt frigid. But, in reality, we were just really hot from being in the sun, and the water was cooling us down significantly. Our professor then showed us the stromatolites.

Stromatolites are one of the oldest forms of life. The earliest stromatolite fossils, found in Greenland, date back to 3.7 billion years ago. They form when a certain kind of cyanobacteria — bacteria that photosynthesize — form clumps and start retaining mud layers. Stromatolites dominated reefs for the first 3.5 billion years of Earth’s history but have been declining for the past 1 billion years. They were succeeded by sponges, rudists, and corals. Their fall was fueled by the rise of animals, which like to eat them. Today, they are limited to very saline water in environments that are too harsh for most animals. These locations include: Shark Bay, several other beaches and lakes in western Australia, Exuma Cays in the Bahamas, Lago Salgada in Brazil, Cuatro Ciénegas and Lake Alchichica in Mexico, and Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve in Chile.

Stromatolites come in all shapes and sizes — called “morphologies” — but geologists don’t know what they signify. Hamelin Pool in Shark Bay has the largest remaining colony of stromatolites in the world, so our research projects would focus on understanding how their morphologies changed with water depth.

After walking in the water for some time, we headed inland to examine sand dunes. The temperature soared above 40ºC, and the flies intensified. Sand dunes’ shapes provide information about the environment in which they formed. Crescentic barchan dunes form when there’s little surrounding sand and one predominant wind direction. Transverse dunes occur in vast sand seas, and their crests are perpendicular to the wind.  Longitude dunes are created by multiple wind directions. The dunes on the shore were parabolic dunes: barchan dunes that reversed as plants secured their edges and their central arches buckled under the wind. They indicate that the climate is temperate with sufficient precipitation to support vegetation.

We stopped to study the cross-bedding in the sandstone of fossilized sand dunes. Sand grains are pushed up the front side of a sand dune by the wind. After they cross its crest, the grains fall down the backside and are deposited in layers. As the wind pushes the dune back, successive layers are deposited on top of one another. Eventually, the land subsides, and these layers are preserved as cross-bedding in sandstone. By measuring the cross-bedding’s direction of inclination, we can determine the types of dunes that existed in the past and the general climate at the time of formation. The two cross-bedded rocks in front of us indicated that there was once a westward-oriented parabolic dune. This information tells us that the climate had enough rain to support plants and that the wind came from a seaward direction.

While the Sun was approaching high noon, the flies were getting worse. There was a never-ending buzz in my ears. They covered all of one student’s lips. For another, they were crawling on his neck. Three kangaroos rested under the shade of some rock bluffs no more than 100 meters from camp. We returned for lunch. The cheese in my box had melted onto my sandwich. Liquified peanut butter oozed out from between two slices of bread. Our water tasted like warm tea from being in the sunlight. In the morning, the land breeze had picked up and knocked over some tents. Now, it was calm.

For the rest of the day, I waded in the water with one of the stromatolite research teams. We walked along transects — straight lines that a person walks and periodically stops to take measurements or collect samples — that were perpendicular to the shore. The waves grew larger as the tide rolled in. It was new Moon, so we were experiencing the strongest spring tide of the synodic month.

Evening came as a relief. There were no flies after sunset. The air cooled to a comfortable 22ºC with a sea breeze. We ate dinner while watching the stars.

Day 5— The sunlight woke me up around 6:00 AM. Flies buzzed by my head as soon as I left my tent. I began the day by walking several transects parallel to the shore with an advanced GPS to record accurate elevation measurements.

By mid-morning, the stromatolite research team had decided to switch the focus of their project. I was paired with the student who I worked for in the Bahamas, and we went into a section of shallow water near camp to survey stromatolites.

The water was perfectly clear. Small fish darted away from us as we walked around. Their dark scales juxtaposed the white sand beneath them. The Sun’s rays scorched us with increasing intensity as its yellow disk rose higher into the sky. Reflections from the water were just as harmful.

I had learned my lesson after receiving terrible sunburn in the Bahamas. This time, I was much more prepared by wearing long sleeves, pants, gloves, sunglasses, a buff and hat. No one else was so fortunate. By the end of the day, they looked like tomatoes.

For the evening, I digitized the data that we had collected. For a few minutes, we stopped to watch the Sun sink below the horizon. The orange crescentic Moon followed it an hour later.

Day 6— I repeated the previous day’s activities. Our survey area shifted southward. After lunch, a sea snake — longer than an arm span in length — slithered out from behind a stromatolite. There’s a saying that goes, “everything in Australia is trying to kill you.” Sea snakes are no different. All sea snakes are deadly, but the worst ones can kill eight adult humans with three drops of venom. The snake that we saw was not as dangerous.

Shark Bay is also home to stonefish. They have spines on their back that inject venom into feet when stepped upon. If not treated immediately, the venom will kill a person. As the most venomous fish in the world, their sting has been described as one of the worst pains that a human can feel. We never saw any. But neither have the people who stepped on them.

We abandoned the stromatolite survey and collected grain samples along the beach for two kilometers during the final hours of the afternoon. The Sun was low by the time we returned to camp. Everyone ate dinner under the stars again.

Day 7— A sheen of cirrus clouds blanketed the morning sky. They reduced the day’s heat by a noticeable degree. My partner and I continued surveying stromatolites in a quadrangle one kilometer from camp. Since it was the final day of field work at Shark Bay, we rushed to collect as much data as possible. In the evening, I helped several students build a fire for roasting sweet potatoes. The clouds cleared to reveal the stars. ‘

Day 8— Thick clouds blocked the Sun. We packed up camp and drove out over Carbla’s wide red plains. There wasn’t much new for the first few hours of our southward drive. Green shrubs grew on desert pavement. Slowly, the scenery transformed into rolling hills and mesas below a pale blue sky. We continued to pass dead kangaroos. The class stopped for lunch at a Subway in Geraldton. After seeing  several construction workers come in for lunch, one English classmate said, “Every Australian that I have seen has looked like a stereotype of an Australian.”

We arrived in Jurien Bay by mid-afternoon. Half of the class went to our rental bungalow, and the other half went to scout our next work site.

Situated only two hours north of Perth, Numbung National Park is the crown jewel of western Australia. Tourists flock to it during the cooler winter months. Thousands of limestone pinnacles rise up to five meters above the sand sea surrounding them. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some look like tree trunks. Others are tombstones. Obtuse caps make pinnacles resemble mushrooms. A few are similar to candlesticks. Despite being one of western Australia’s icons, relatively little is known about the pinnacles’ origin. The signs in the visitor’s center say that they formed from a petrified forest or the remnants of plant roots.

But don’t let the signs fool you. Basic qualitative observations negate these hypotheses. The pinnacles contain several stratigraphic units — rock layers. In certain areas, the pinnacles have cross-bedding, and in another they feature paleosols, preserved ancient soils. Australian researchers conducted series of surveys in 2014-2017 and claimed that the pinnacles formed as the remnants of solution pipes. They are created when water dissolves holes in limestone. The researchers also said that the pinnacles contained climate data from Late Quaternary times.

Our car passed an emu as we drove into Nambung National Park. Dull yellow sand dunes greeted us at the entrance to the park’s road. We went to the central observation deck, and then walked around for an hour. The sheer number of pinnacles was remarkable. They littered the desert for at least three kilometers in one direction. At the top of a dune, I could see portion of the desert that contained only white sand. To the west, the Indian Ocean sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight. In the opposite direction, the red Australian outback stretched to the horizon.

We drove back to our house around 4:00 PM. My team spent much of the evening planning our research project for the next two days. After Shark Bay’s heat, it was nice to be in air conditioning.

Day 9— Following a quick breakfast, we set out for the Pinnacles Desert. Eight emus walked through the shrubs within ten feet of our car as we drove in. Our research permits gave us carte blanche to do almost whatever we wanted in the park. My group started the day by teaching the other students how to analyze individual pinnacles.

Then, we split up into teams. I worked with a Chinese graduate student on one central section. Our goal was to determine how the height of a paleosol layer in the pinnacles varied. One by one, I measured pinnacle after pinnacle for the entire day. Two tourists from Germany talked to us for a few minutes. Cars drove past us the entire day. In the late afternoon, thunder rumbled over the desert. Luckily, it didn’t rain. We left the park 30 minutes before sunset.

Day 10— We returned to the pinnacles for a final time. Blue clouds covered the sky. I worked with my partner on measuring the cross-bedding inclinations and their directions, called the “dip” and “dip direction” by geologists. At lunch, another graduate student drove us to the visitors’ center. We read about the park’s history, scoffed at the incorrect geology signs, and got ice cream. Then, we returned to work. The flies were as bad as ever. In the distance, the Indian Ocean turned dark blue. The class rendezvoused at the observation deck at the day’s end. A kangaroo hopped through the pinnacles.

Day 11— We left the rental house after breakfast. The hours blended together as we drove southward. Desert pavement turned back into green farmland. It became rainy when Perth’s skyscrapers came into view. Our drive ended at the far southern end of Australia’s western coast.

For the final day, we stayed in a beach house near Quindalup along Geographe Bay. It was a very nice house, and Princeton paid for it. The interior was airy. There were walk-in closets, glass bathrooms, king-sized beds, granite countertops, and a large television.

The class played frisbee and football on the nearby beach. I couldn’t believe that classes were starting at Princeton — which was 12 time zones behind us — while we were still playing around on the opposite side of the planet at the edge of the Australian continent. The vast expanse of the Indian Ocean stretched toward the horizon.

Our professor cooked a wonderful vegan dinner of mock shepard’s pie, salad, and chocolate covered fruits.

Day 12— Around mid-morning, we left the house and went to Ngilgi Cave. It had been used for shelter by local wildlife and the indigenous people for centuries. Aborigines thought that Ngilgi was a spirit for good who fought against the evil spirit Wolgine. In 1899, a local settler, named Edward Dawson, found the cave while looking for stray horses. He opened it for tours and was its tour guide during 1900-1937. It used to take an overnight train ride and two days of wagon travel to reach the cave. Visitors would follow the trail of empty beer bottles to get there. “That’s the Australian way of navigation,” said one of the cave’s current employees. In 1965, a woman from Perth stayed in the cave for 90 days to break the world record for cave sitting. During her stay, she excavated the skeleton of a 2.28 meter-tall megafauna kangaroo from earlier in the Pleistocene. Today, the cave remains a popular tourist attraction. Occasionally, there are concerts in one of its chambers.

We walked into the cave and looked at its dizzying array of stalactites, stalagmites, fins, and crystals. A thick red paleosol was visible in the walls of some sections. Ngilgi was the most impressive cave that I’ve seen yet. For lunch, we stopped at a bakery in the nearby Cave House.

Next, we went to the Petra Olive Oil Estate. Olive trees were lined in neat rows. A house was in the center of the property, and a pond was located 100 meters away from it. Kangaroos and wallabies lounged under the trees. The weather was mild thanks to a gentle breeze. It was paradise.

The owners temporarily opened their shop to us. They showed us how they made olive oil and let us sample some as it was falling straight out of the machine. Its smooth texture had a strong pang at the back of the throat after swallowing.

For the remainder of the day, we drove back to Perth. Around 10:00 PM, we boarded our Emirates flight to Dubai. I had vegemite during the in-flight breakfast. It was disgusting.

Day 13— Our airplane landed in Dubai at 4:30 AM. The airport was bustling in spite of the early hour. The class got smoothies and then dispersed. I walked around the airport for a few hours. My initial assessment of the place was still correct. I didn’t hear anyone with an American accent the entire time. Everyone appeared to be from the eastern hemisphere or western Europe. Most of the menial workers were Indian. Businessmen in suits were European and Chinese. The Burj Khalifa loomed in the distance behind a thick haze. If the UAE plays its cards correctly, Dubai will become the hub of the world.

I boarded our final flight around 8:00 AM. The airplane flew straight northward over the Caucasus Mountains, turned westward to cross Scandinavia, passed Greenland, and finally went south to New York City. Getting through customs was easy, and a bus brought us back to Princeton. I went to 30 Burgers for dinner.

Conclusion

Australia is a vast continent of untamed desert wilderness. For those who are unprepared, its relentless heat, intense dryness, and rocky terrain can be unforgiving. Although our trip covered two thirds of the distance along its western coast, there was much more that we didn’t see. Australia contains some of the oldest rocks in the world. But it also has some of the newest, most interesting geological developments.

As human-driven climate change advances, additional information about the Earth’s climate and its processes will be needed to understand its effects. Advancements in sedimentology will continue to provide new insights about how climate change occurred in the past. To study the natural processes that record these shifts and cycles, geologists will keep exploring the Land Down Under.

Photo Gallery

Weeks in Review 3/5-16/18

Monday— Mary Norris, a former copy editor for The New Yorker, visited my creative nonfiction class and discussed the editor’s role in the writing process.

Wednesday— A blizzard hit Princeton, and there was thundersnow.

Thursday— Some entrepreneurial students started making sweaters with the label “Princetagonia” in a spoof of Patagonia, the renowned outdoor clothing company. The shirts are wildly popular and can be seen across campus.

Monday— I had an article published in the Daily Princetonian.

Tuesday— A far-right Christian group protested at Princeton. There’s usually two conservative Christian protests per semester (often around Frist) that condemn atheism or general disbelief in God. But this group was different. It was more extreme than the others and generated a counter-protest.

 

Photo Gallery

Weeks in Review 2/18-3/4/18

Monday— New Yorker writers Sandy Frazier and Mark Singer visited my creative nonfiction class. The students asked them questions, and they talked about how they started in writing as a career and their processes for drafting articles. Singer has written several books and gone on dozens of assignments for the magazine. Frazier has written numerous travel pieces and humorous essays.

Wednesday— Whig-Clio held a debate on the subject of, “Professor Rosen should not have been able to use the n-word.” It was one of the most heavily attended debates that I’ve ever seen. Professor Rosen, department chair Rouse, and Dean of Undergraduates Dolan were all there in addition to over 50 students. Student sentiment was generally against Rosen. They argued that the utterance of racial slurs equated to physical injury. There were few conservatives in the room, but some said that Rosen’s academic freedom allows him to say whatever he wants. This was an issue that I didn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole, so I just watched and didn’t vote.

My series on Bicker was published in the Daily Princetonian. Article 1, Article 2, Article 3

Thursday— Bob Murley ’72 spoke at a private dinner in Whitman College. He is the chairman of investment banking at Credit Suisse and chairman of Educational Testing Services. He and his wife, a graduate of the Class of 1976, donated $2 million for the construction of the Murley-Pivirotto Family Tower; it has the most popular rooms in Whitman.

Murley was a very polished speaker. His talk focused on ten life lessons that he thought all college students should know. He mentioned that he was an Eagle Scout and had been encouraged to apply to Princeton by one of the Boy Scouts of America’s international representatives.

Saturday— I went to a jazz concert to watch a friend. It featured Danilo Pérez, a prominent Panamanian pianist who played with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and won a Grammy.

Wednesday— I attended a James Madison Program dinner at the Prospect House for a talk by Professor Andrew Porwancher from the University of Oklahoma. He’s a historian who specializes in early American history and the Constitution. Currently, he’s writing a book titled The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life. Porwancher tracked down primary documents across Europe and the Caribbean about Hamilton’s early life. The evidence led him to conclude that Hamilton was originally Jewish but later converted to Christianity in the United States out of political necessity. He remained close to the Jewish community while working as a lawyer. One by one, Porwancher went down the list of counterarguments to his position and explained how the evidence contradicted them. His book will be published within the next year.

Thursday— Brad Smith ’81, president of Microsoft, gave a lecture about the impact of computers’ artificial intelligence (A.I.) on humans’ lives in the future. He predicted that almost every piece of technology will eventually have some form of A.I. integrated into it. Smith warned that jobs involving decision-making and visual or speech analysis will probably be replaced by computers. Jobs that require ingenuity, entrepreneurship, empathy, innovation, or teaching will not be replaced. But A.I. will also create new jobs. He said that 65 percent of today’s high school seniors will work in jobs that do not currently exist.

Friday— My biweekly article for my creative nonfiction class required that I gather new interview material. I went to the Scheide Library in Firestone. The Library’s collection of rare books is worth $300 million. It includes the Gutenberg Bible and an original printing of the Declaration of Independence. The librarians showed me a copy of Ptolemy’s Geographia, a book from 1482.

Saturday— For the weekend, I went to a debate tournament at The College of New Jersey. The debate topics were:

  • This House regrets Prohibition. (opposition, lost)
  • This House would end flood insurance subsidies. (government, won)
  • This House would establish segregated economic zones in developing nations. (government, lost)
  • This House believes that it is competitively advantageous for the government team to not deliver a Prime Minister Constructive speech in APDA debates. (opposition, lost)
  • This House, as the Muslim Brotherhood, would take Egyptian President Mubarak’s deal for a peaceful transition of power. (government, lost)

My partner was another sophomore who had recently joined the team. I received a paper award for placing tenth out of the junior varsity debaters.

 

Photo Gallery

Bicker

“You can talk, you can bicker, you can bicker, you can talk. You can talk all you want to but it’s different than it was.” “No it ain’t, but you gotta know the territory!”

— Meredith Willson, “The Music Man”

Overview

At the start of every spring semester — like clockwork — Princeton’s sophomores venture down Prospect Avenue to join social organizations called “eating clubs.” As groups of students walk down narrow sidewalks, a few peel away at each successive opulent mansion. It’s been this way since F. Scott Fitzgerald was a student, and it hasn’t changed much.

Eating-Clubs-1.jpg

Eating clubs past and present.

Princeton — unlike most other colleges — doesn’t have any recognized fraternities or sororities, so the eating clubs serve as the hub of social life. Three quarters of upperclassmen are in them.

There are eleven eating clubs: Ivy Club, Tiger Inn, Colonial Club, Charter Club, Cloister Inn, Cottage Club, Terrace Club, Quadrangle Club, Princeton Tower Club, Cannon Dial Elm Club, and Cap and Gown Club. All of them are located on Prospect Avenue, colloquially called “the Street.” Each club has a popularly-ingrained stereotype:

  • Tiger Inn– known as the “Animal House” of Princeton, mostly people who like to drink a lot, sexual debauchery, raucous parties, loud and proud, (Though in a strange twist of fate, more women bicker and get into T.I. than men. Female students have said that the fratty life appeals to them because gender roles are relaxed.)
  • Colonial– a mix of everyone, significantly Asian by proportion, overall nice people
  • Charter– the endearing engineers, Princeton University Band
  • Cloister– “floaters and boaters” who are the members of the rowing, swimming, and diving teams
  • Cottage– the southern élite, students from unrecognized fraternities and sororities, heavily white
  • Ivy– students from the upper class who may be children of celebrities, captains of industry, or world leaders, international students, also Greek-heavy
  • Terrace– the alternative type, artistic people, students who do drugs, hippies, free love, all-inclusive, anti-establishment
  • Quadrangle– STEM majors, a mix people from anything and everything, some of the smartest people on campus
  • Tower– all of the politicos, artistic people, writers, a small engineering contingent, (a friend once quipped, “Ivy is for the people who will own the world, and Tower is for the people who will run the world.”)
  • Cannon– almost entirely athletes
  • Cap– a diverse and chill set of people, a mix of everyone

One could ask any student at Princeton about the eating clubs, and she would probably give an answer like this. But don’t take my word for it. There are dozens of online articles on this subject. Not everyone in a club perfectly matches its description, however the stereotypes persist nevertheless.

Students can join five of the eating clubs — Colonial, Terrace, Cloister, Charter, and Quadrangle — through a process called “Sign-in.” They rank the five clubs in order of preference and an algorithm sorts them into a club. Most students get their top choice. But the other six clubs require students to undergo a selective admissions process named “Bicker.” It’s a Princeton tradition that’s shrouded in mystery and the angst of high school seniors on College Confidential.

Introduction

During the late nineteenth century, Princeton’s student body was growing, but the school couldn’t expand its meal services to meet the increased demand. Its dining hall closed in 1856, so students started to eat meals at local boarding houses in groups that became known as “eating clubs.” The original clubs were only temporary associations until Ivy Club was founded in 1879. At first, it was located in the old Princeton Law School building on Mercer Road and later moved to its present clubhouse on Prospect Avenue.

Other clubs organized in the following decades. By 1912, the eleven eating clubs in existence today had all been established. There were additional eating clubs that opened based on students’ changing desires, but none of them survived.

Woodrow Wilson was Princeton’s president at the turn of the century. He tried to kill the eating clubs and integrate them into his residential college plan. Wilson met opposition from alumni. His failed plan contributed to the distaste that caused his ousting — and onto the path toward the presidency.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the eating clubs in This Side of Paradise:

“Ivy, detached and breathlessly aristocratic; Cottage, an impressive melange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers; Tiger Inn, broad-shouldered and athletic, vitalized by an honest elaboration of prep-school standards; Cap and Gown, anti-alcoholic, faintly religious and politically powerful; flamboyant Colonial; literary Quadrangle; and the dozen others varying in age and position.”

These descriptions still hold some iota of truth today.

By 1914, Students had started Bicker. It was defined as, “any talk, argument or discussion designed to induce any man to join any club.” A club representative visited students in their rooms and had short conversations with them. Then, clubs offered bids to them. If he was a big man on campus, he received upwards of six bids. The most competitive bids were usually from the Big Five: Ivy, Colonial, Cottage, Tiger Inn, and Cap and Gown. Students who performed poorly in Bicker received 1-3 bids from bottom-tier clubs on the social hierarchy. A writer for the The Harvard Crimson said after visiting Princeton, “Bicker is a frightening and trivial experience.” Protests to abolish it began in the 1920s.

People who are rejected from a club are colloquially said to get “hosed.” For some people, getting hosed is difficult. As the Yale Daily News reported, “Senior Grace Labatt said a friend who was rejected from a bicker club actually took the next semester off. Being rejected from a club, Labatt said, can be especially difficult when students bicker with friends or when they have a parent who was a member.”

To mitigate the degree to which students felt rejected, the eating club presidents instated a “100 percent Bicker” policy in the 1950s, meaning that anyone who bickered was guaranteed to get into at least one club. Princeton became the center of a national scandal in 1958 when 23 students — over half of whom were Jewish — did not receive any club bids. The “Dirty Bicker,” as it became known, showed the nation how anti-semitic prejudices were at play in the Ivy League.

Protests against Bicker continued. In 1967, there was a “Gentlemanly Revolt” where the leaders of Princeton’s most influential extracurricular clubs distributed a pamphlet outlining ways to improve the clubs, including a plan to end Bicker. The revolt failed. Alumni control and campus apathy prevented anything from changing. It was the seventh protest in the system’s history. During the affair, one alumnus graduate board chairman told The Harvard Crimson, “You can’t sleep with every girl you’d like to. Why do you think you should get into every club you want to?”

The following year, the administration opened a school-sponsored social club called “Adlai Stevenson Hall” in honor of the former U.S. diplomat. It was housed in the mansion of the former Court Club, which closed in 1964. At the same time, eighty four club members posted in advertisement in the Daily Princetonian that said they were resigning from their clubs to protest Bicker.

Princeton gradually provided alternatives to the eating clubs by instituting residential colleges — dorm clusters with shared dining halls. But the clubs remained the most popular dining option for upperclassmen.

Terrace abandoned Bicker in favor of sign-in in 1967, and others soon followed. Most of the clubs became co-ed when Princeton began admitting women; however, Ivy and T.I. were forced to accept women in 1990 following a high-profile lawsuit filed by student Sally Frank in 1980.

Three hundred fifty students protested Bicker in 1978. They supported the Social Alternatives Coalition, a club that sought new dining options for those who didn’t want to bicker. The chairman of the Coalition was a former Ivy member who resigned from the club to protest Bicker. He said to The New York Times, “I was so unhappy and disturbed by the spectacle of my friends and schoolmates being sucked into a system that they were unhappy with.”

In the late 1980s, Bicker evolved such that sophomores applied to only one club. Clubs wanted evidence that they were students’ first choice. In 2013, the Interclub Council reintroduced “Double Bicker,” which allowed students to Bicker two eating clubs. By 2017, all six of the selective clubs had adopted this policy.

In 2015, undergraduates voted on a referendum that would have called on the eating clubs to end Bicker by 2019 and directed the Undergraduate Student Government to form a committee that would facilitate the process. Nearly two thousand students voted, of which over half rebuked the “Hose Bicker” referendum.

The referendum’s sponsor told the Daily Princetonian, “if you were in a Bicker club, you couldn’t oppose Bicker because then you’re being hypocritical, if you got hosed you couldn’t be hypocritical because then you’re just being salty, if you’re never bickered then you can’t be opposed because you don’t understand the process.”

As my winter break drew to a close, I started receiving e-mails from the eating clubs about Bicker and Sign-In. I had not yet given much thought about which eating club I would join if I even joined one at all. After some deliberation, I decided to jump in headfirst to get a closer look at this peculiar Princeton tradition. I registered to bicker Ivy and Tower. I deliberately picked these two clubs as part of a social experiment. I knew a lot of people in Tower through Whig-Clio and debate. By contrast, I hardly knew anyone in Ivy.

Prior to Bicker, I studied each club for nearly 90 minutes in preparation for the interviews. I poured through their websites, past newsletters, Daily Princetonian articles, and anything else I could get my hands on. I brainstormed potential question, prepared answers, and practiced giving them in an empty room. If I was going to Bicker, I was going in fully loaded.

Princeton Tower Club

Unknown-1.jpeg

At 11:50 AM on Sunday, February 4, a mob of Princeton students spilled out of Frist Campus Center. Some of them shouted into the air, and others chatted loudly amongst themselves. The first Bicker session for the eating clubs was going to begin in 10 minutes.

Although sharp gusts of wind brought snow flurries tumbling down, the group remained cheerful. I tagged along in the back. After crossing Nassau Street, students left the main group as they passed each eating club. Tower is the closest club to campus, so I departed early.

Once in line outside of the club’s glossy wooden doors, I talked to friends and eavesdropped on some nearby conversations. Everyone sounded nervous. The tension could be cut with a knife.

Two Tower members emerged from the door, introduced themselves as members of the Bicker committee, and gave us directions. I walked inside, relieved to be in a heated room. Tower’s interior is cozy. Its light beige paint and dark carved wood-paneled walls are classy but not stiff. I submitted an online form with basic contact information. The final question asked if I preferred to be hosed in person or by online notification. I chose the latter. In retrospect, I wish I had chosen the former.

I walked over to a table and filled out a notecard with standard information: name, hometown, major, extracurricular activities, and a fun fact about yourself (infamously known on campus as the “Tower Fun Fact”). My fun fact was that I swam with piranhas in the Amazon rainforest. Once completed, someone took my picture, and I handed my notecard to a member of the Bicker committee who was standing on top of a table.

Tower’s Bicker was an anthill. Twenty or more students huddled around the Bicker committee member. She flipped through the notecards and handed them out to club members. When members approached the committeeman, she asked them if they knew the person on the card. If the answer was negative, she handed the member the notecard, and the member whisked away the bickeree to a corner of the clubhouse for an interview. Members are not allowed to interview people that they already know; that is known as “dirty bicker.” Once the interview ended, bickerees gave their card back to the committee member, and the process repeated itself ad nauseam.

Over three Bicker sessions of two hours each, I had approximately twenty interviews. Some of them were conducted jointly with another student, a practice known as “double bicker.” Most interviews were simple discussions around a table. One interview occurred while playing a game of 8-ball. Another interview had very few questions from some bored club members and involved playing “Heads Up!” for ten minutes.

Below are all of the interview questions that club members asked me. The frequency at which they were asked is in parentheses.

  • Tell me about your fun fact. (15)
  • Why did you choose that as your major? (8)
  • Would you rather live life as normal or receive $1 million and have a death snail constantly crawling toward you from anywhere in the world. It can travel across water and through walls at a snail’s pace, and you can identify it. But it will kill you if it touches you. (2) (A Tower Classic)
  • Where is your ideal napping spot on campus? (1)
  • Why do you want to join Tower? (10)
  • What is your favorite aspect of Tower? (3)
  • If you were not a college student, what would you be and read it off as if it were your Wikipedia page? (1)
  • Where is your dream vacation destination? (3)
  • How did you get into your hobbies? (4)
  • What is it like being in (insert one of your extracurricular clubs)? (13)
  • If you had a punk band, what would its name be? (1)
  • Does a cylinder have one hole or two holes? (1)
  • Guess what our (the interviewers’) hometowns and majors are. (1)
  • What are your two favorite movies, television shows, and musical artists? (1)
  • Tell us your favorite joke. (1)
  • What is your opinion on candy corn? (1)
  • Is a hot dog a sandwich? (1) (A Tower Classic)
  • What is one skill that you will never have but want to learn? (1)
  • What is your favorite Tower memory? (5)
  • What is your favorite class in your department? (2)
  • What would you show me in your hometown if I were to visit it? (1)
  • What are your top three favorite movies? (3)
  • What are you going to do with your degree? (2)
Unknown.jpeg

A Sesame Street parody of Rembrandt‘s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”

  • You own an art gallery. The picture above has been sitting in your gallery for months. No one has wanted to buy it. Now, two wealthy businessmen (the interviewers) are standing in front of you and are interested in it. Sell it to them. Tell the picture’s history, style, and how it makes you feel. (1)

People at Tower were generally friendly. Although the majority of members that I met were politics, economics, or Woodrow Wilson School majors, there were a few engineers, physicists, or writers. Tower’s president-elect interviewed me, and she was very affable.

Later, Tower’s current president gave me an interview. He asked me, “Given your articles about underage drinking in the ‘Prince,’ does bickering an eating club contradict your principles?” The question initially caught me by surprise. Nobody reads the student newspaper. But I should have known better at Tower — the only club whose members care about campus politics. I responded that I thought individuals should be held responsible for their actions and not the club at large. He didn’t seem satisfied by my answer.

In between interviews, I took a few minutes to look at the sophomores in the lobby. They didn’t appear to be happy. There was a look of consternation in many of their eyes. But that melted into a smile when members picked them up for interviews.

To repurpose a Forrest Gump quote, Tower was like a box of chocolates; you never knew what you’d get in its Bicker. Conversation topics ranged from pedestrian to outlandish. Regardless of their nature, I had performed well. While it’s impossible to entirely succeed at some of the bizarre questions, I had delivered my answers swiftly, and my fun fact captured members’ attention.

Ivy Club

Unknown.jpeg

The snow had stopped falling by the time I left Tower on the afternoon of February’s first Sunday. Students were streaming out of the eating clubs after the day’s first Bicker session had ended and were either funneling back to Frist across the street or going to the second eating club for which they were bickering. After having sufficiently held my ground in Tower’s barrage of questions, I knew that I could handle Bicker at another club.

I saw a friend leaning against a post to Ivy’s iron gate.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him.

He replied, “I thought I’d bicker Ivy for the fun of it.

“I guess that makes two of us.”

“If you’re going to Bicker, you should go big.”

We walked into Ivy‘s brick Jacobethan clubhouse. Its interior was dimly lit by cool white light coming from wall-mounted shaded miniature lamps. We followed a line and dropped our coats in a room to the entrance’s right. The room’s walls were painted lime green. A fire place was adorned with white trimming.

My friend and I walked back into the foyer. The bickerees were standing in tattered clumps spaced throughout the room as if it were a cocktail party, but they were concentrated at the base of a magnificent wide wooden staircase. A painting of approximately eight feet long by five feet high hung from the side wall next to the staircase. It showed Medieval monks eating dinner at a long table. Portraits of the club’s notable alumni lined the foyer’s walls; each of their subjects had their own Wikipedia pages.

Ivy’s standardized Bicker process has changed little over the past few decades. Every student is interviewed by exactly ten members, five males and five females (though I had four males and six females). Interviews last 10-30 minutes or longer depending on the student. In 1999, James Q. Griffith ’55 — the president of Ivy’s graduate board at that time — said to The New York Times of the club’s Bicker, “I can’t see any difference between the way it is now and 50 years ago.” He continued, “It’s a Jeffersonian democracy, taking the natural aristocracy, as you were.”

After fifteen minutes, Ivy’s members gathered at the top of the staircase. Despite the lackluster lighting, I noticed some commonalities between the members’ æsthetics. All of them were well dressed. While they were not in suits or gowns, they wore clothes that would make them indistinguishable from the average patron at an upper mid-tier New York City restaurant. Many of them kept an urbane European appearance with sweaters, dresses, scarves, Oxford shirts, close-fitting pants, and stylish shoes. Most were light skinned and had neatly cut hair.

Several students wearing loosely tied green neckties walked down the stairs. One of them started banging a cowbell, and then all went silent when the club’s president yelled, “Everyone shut up!” She told the group how the Bicker process worked.

Then, it began.

One by one, the club’s cosmopolitan members descended down the clubhouse’s grand staircase and called out their bickeree’s name. It was a scene from a modern-day Fitzgerald novel. But sometimes you can’t write fiction that’s stranger than reality.

My first interviewer walked down the stairs with a friend. She had decided to double bicker. The member assigned to me was short with freckled pale skin and shoulder-length orange-brown hair. Her friend was of a similar stature, blonde, and energetic. I recognized her as an actress in one of Princeton’s prominent theatrical groups.

Following an initial exchange of smiles and handshakes, they led us into the club’s new wing. The room was filled with bickering students whose voices filled the cavernous room all the way up to its vaulted wooden ceiling. A carved limestone fireplace was in the center of the left wall and was flanked to the back by two doric columns. We sat at a table in the back for a 15-minute conversation. The club members seemed to be solely interested in partying and hookups. I couldn’t talk much on those subjects compared to the other sophomore who could discuss at length about his experiences getting into exclusive raunchy European nightclubs.

I returned to the foyer, and my second interviewer came after fifteen minutes. She took me into Ivy’s dining room. Six tables in two columns of three were covered in white tablecloths and lined by wood chairs. Each table had silver candelabra. According to tradition, the candles are always lit for meals. Club members are required to take the next open seat at a table when eating. They order from a menu, and waiters serve the food to them.

With shoulder-length brunette hair and a black dress, my second interviewer exuded sophistication. In a measured tone, she asked me questions that registered on the upper-tier of difficulty for job interviews. Her intense stare made it feel as though I was the only person in the room despite the fact that there were at least a dozen bickerees having similar conversations at nearby tables. She said that she was “impressed” by my answer to the question “Why Bicker Ivy?” and commented that I was, “very well spoken.” My preparation had paid off.

My next interview was another double bicker with a sophomore from Westchester County, New York. The club members took us down into the “crypt,” Ivy’s newly constructed library. Whitewashed columns held up curved ceiling panels amongst light brown bookcases. The other sophomore and I sat on a table while our interviewers rested in a window seat.

The interviewer on the left had chest-length brown hair and thin pink lips on her pale face. The other interviewer’s bright eyes juxtaposed her soft black skin. She remained enthusiastic; her smile never waned. When describing her upbringing, she said, “I went to boarding school at the Lawrenceville School. A lot of people in Ivy went to Lawrenceville.” The Lawrenceville School’s total annual cost is $65,920.

By the time my third interview finished, the Bicker session had ended. I returned at 9:15 PM the next evening after leaving Tower. Ivy’s Bicker started all over again with the officers banging a cowbell and members traipsing down the staircase.

My fourth interviewer took me to a window seat in Ivy’s taproom. She was of middle height and light complexion. Her face was dotted with freckles, and she sported a dark dress. She had a propensity to ask questions about my childhood. I haven’t the slightest idea as to what that subject has to do with the assessment of my personality as a prospective Ivy member.

The subsequent interviewer was a short female with shoulder-length brown hair, wide open eyes, and a level of energy matched only by a cheerleader after a shot of espresso. As we watched members playing 8-ball, she peppered me with questions about love. I thought it was a rather odd topic to discuss with a complete stranger, so I pivoted the conversation to a different subject. At the end of the conversation, she said, “You’re very eloquent. You should go into politics.”

I was taken back to the “crypt” for my sixth interview. A blonde British male of average height in a gray henley shirt sat next to me on a couch. He exhaled clouds of vapor from his e-cigarette when he thought that I wasn’t looking. Of all of the conversations that I had, his was the most fascinating. He told exotic stories of venturing around eastern Africa for his senior thesis research. When the interview was finished, we stood up. I saw something on the couch and said, “I think you dropped your wallet.” He picked it up and responded, “Thanks. I left it there to see if you would steal it.”

As we were walking back to the foyer, he mentioned that 210 students were bickering for approximately 60 openings. In total, the club had to hold 2,100 Bicker conversations within three nights.

The last interview of the night was conducted by a dark blonde male from Philadelphia. A thin mustache covered his upper lip below his strong blue eyes. He asked only one direct question during the interview: “What are you interested in studying?” The rest of our conversation consisted of discussing economic solutions to climate change. He didn’t have the veneer of a fake personality; instead, he seemed to be genuinely interested in learning and just wanted to use Bicker as an opportunity to hear new ideas.

I arrived at Ivy for the third and final time on Tuesday evening. My first interview of the night occurred in the pool room. A muscular British man in a white shirt sat on the wooden booth perpendicular to me. He was tall with fierce blue eyes, dark eyebrows, and a broad-shouldered athletic build. Our conversation went like this:

“Who was your favorite interviewer?”

“The second interviewer stands out in my memory. She had a very intense stare. That was different from everyone else. It felt like she was hanging on your every word.”

“What kind of stare was it?”

“It felt like she was staring at my brain or something.”

“Do you want to look into people’s brains?”

“What?”

“Do you want to look into people’s brains?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“Sometimes there are things that I would rather not know about other people.”

“What kind of things do you not want to know about them?”

This exchange carried on — back and forth — for the next 15 minutes like a Socratic dialogue. It was the most peculiar conversation that I’ve had at Princeton. Eventually, we arrived at public speaking as a topic, and he interrogated me about the best tips that I had for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Then, I had another double bicker interview in the “crypt.” One member, an Iraqi, spoke with a British accent. His hair was short on the sides and longer on top, and he wore a denim jacket with a sherpa fleece-lined collar that gave him the aura of an adventurer. The other member was a burly man from Nigeria whose handshake nearly crushed my meager palm. They spent most of the time joking with each other.

At last, I arrived at my final interview. An Asian female escorted me to the taproom. She asked me questions about world events, specifically those concerning Tibet and Taiwan’s relationships to China. Following my response to the question “Why Ivy?” she said, “That was a good answer. I’m tired of people saying, ‘because of the people.'”

Unfortunately, for me, as former Ivy member Sheon Han recently wrote in the Nassau Weekly, “Many interviews end with this question, ‘Why do you want to join Ivy?’ Having a good answer wouldn’t help much. Just like the Princeton admissions interview, the question exists only to filter out potential serial killers.”

In all, I was asked the following questions during my interviews:

  • Tell me about yourself. (8)
  • Why bicker Ivy? (9)
  • Why do you like your major? (4)
  • How did you get into your hobbies? (2)
  • Pitch a new party idea for Ivy in 30 seconds. (1)
  • If you could have dinner with anyone throughout history, who would it be and why? (1)
  • What has been your favorite class at Princeton and why? (2)
  • If you died tonight with no other communication with the outside world, what would you want people to know? (1)
  • What is one thing people misunderstand about you and why? What is the truth? (1)
  • What is the most extreme thing that you have done? (1)
  • Of your previous interviewers, who was your favorite and why? (5)
  • What is one question that I should ask you that has not already been asked? Now answer it. (2)
  • How would your friends describe you? (1)
  • Have you ever been in love before? If so, with whom? If not, do you plan to fall in love? (1)
  • Describe your ideal first date. (1)
  • Tell me about your childhood and high school. (1)
  • Who do you know in Ivy? (4)
  • Who are your friends? (2)
  • Have you been to any Ivy parties? (4)
  • How would you solve climate change? (1)
  • What career will you pursue? (3)
  • What did you do during Intersession? (3)
  • What thing makes you the happiest in the world, and what makes you the angriest? (1)
  • Would you want to be able to read other people’s minds? (1)
  • Give me your three best public speaking tips. (2)
  • What were your responsibilities for your summer job? (2)
  • Do you know who the Dalai Lama is? Tell me about the conflict between China and Tibet. (1)
  • Do you play sports? (1)
  • What would you contribute to Ivy? (2)
  • Tell me about your life on campus. (3)
  • What is your favorite book? (1)
  • What is your favorite movie? (1)
  • What is your dream vacation? (3)

I crushed Ivy’s Bicker. I had accurately predicted over half of its questions in advance. My responses were unique and surprised several interviewers.

With all of my Bicker interviews completed, I returned to my dorm for some repose. Bicker’s results were to be posted on Friday morning. I shoved any worries that I had about them to the back of my mind. There were more pressing matters that I had to deal with.

St. Archibald’s League

On Thursday, I received an e-mail inviting me to, “Princeton’s newest, coolest, and most exclusive club St. Archibald’s League” with the line, “All invited, few welcome.”

St. Archibald’s League premiered in February 2017 as a live performance protest against Bicker. Unlike prior protests, it didn’t involve the circulation of pamphlets or picketing of eating clubs. Instead, students were welcomed into Campus Club — a former eating club that was bought by the University — and underwent an exaggerated mock Bicker.

Looking for some entertainment, I returned to St. Archibald’s for its second admissions event. Outside of Campus Club, two “protesters” waived signs warning students not to go inside because of St. Archibald’s elitism. They distributed a copy of the Daily Princetonian from 1966 in which its writers penned an editorial saying, “Like you, we are tired of talking about Bicker. But, we are more tired of Bicker itself. We no longer want to wade ankle-deep in its hypocrisy and knee-deep in its bathos. Bicker is tiresome. It is trite. It is unnecessary. It should be abolished.”

I entered Campus Club anyways. Inside, a “bouncer” wearing circular mirrored sunglasses and a black tie beneath a gray jacket greeted us. The “bouncer” led us upstairs to a waiting area where he said that few, if any, of us would be admitted. “The benefits of getting in are infinite. But there are no benefits for getting rejected. We won’t smile when passing by you in the hallways, and we won’t talk to you at the dining hall tables,” he said.

He led us into the club’s library. A woman sat the far row of a long table. One by one, we were called up to sit in a seat next to her and answer the following questions:

  • What is your name and hometown?
  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how cool are you?
  • How racially diverse is your friend group?
  • What is your favorite thing about this club?
  • Rank the other eating clubs from coolest to weirdest.
  • How much do you drink?
  • When was the last time you smoked?
  • Based on my appearance, how many people do you think I have hooked up with?
  • Who in the room do you think comes from the richest family?

When it was my term, the “bouncer” entered the room because I was of “special interest” to the club. I gave a fake name, and he called me out on it. I was promptly escorted out. In the stairwell, the “bouncer” removed his sunglasses and said, “thanks for playing along.”

That bouncer was Kyle Berlin, a senior and renowned campus thespian. Standing at over six feet tall with shaggy long blonde hair, he’s a hard person to miss. His motivations for staging St. Archibald’s League are rooted in his desire for a more inclusive campus. After writing two articles in the “Prince” against Bicker, he received much praise from students and administrators. His most daring move occurred in 2017 when he snuck into Cap and Cottage to interrupt their deliberations and give an announcement asking them to end Bicker. In Cap, a big member kicked him out.

I’ve heard some criticism of Berlin’s work from Bicker’s defenders, who mostly reside in the eating clubs. While such vitriol tries to cast his arguments as a “snowflake,” he’s just another student — in a long line of Princetonians — who’s continuing a protest movement that’s been occurring for nearly a century.

St. Archibald’s League was even more fun after having underwent Bicker. Its faux interviews are outrageous but not too far-fetched. Occasionally, it’s hard to differentiate fact from fiction at Princeton.

The Chosen Ones

For entertainment, I also talked to some friends who bickered. These are some other Bicker questions that I heard about:

  • Who in the club do you think should be reverse hosed?
  • Of your previous interviewers, who would you fuck, marry, and kill?
  • There is a baby in a microwave. You don’t know whose it is. You get $10,000 for every second that you leave the microwave on. How long would you microwave it?
  • Which Princeton libraries would you fuck, marry, and kill?
  • Would you rather invest in copper or copper futures?
  • Here’s a Wikipedia page on Otto von Bismarck. Get to Mitt Romney in as few links as possible. (Apparently, the record was three.)
  • Who is your Cottage crush?
  • What is your favorite Cap memory?

Once Bicker is complete, club members meet during the subsequent nights to determine who is worthy of admittance to their respective clubs. The process varies slightly between clubs, but all require pulling several consecutive all-nighters. For most clubs, members gather in a single room. Bickerees’ names and pictures are projected onto a screen. Members can then discuss the social merits and shortfalls of each bickeree. During this time, they have carte blanche to say whatever they want about a sophomore no matter how significant, trivial, petty, or false it may be.

Tower has a “positive Bicker” policy, meaning that members can assess bickerees solely based on their positive traits. Ivy’s process is unique. After members interview sophomores, they write a paragraph about their experience and rank them on a scale of 1-5. A committee analyzes all of the reports to decide the club’s new membership. Current club members can also submit letters recommending that the committee accept certain people. But these are — allegedly — worth much less than the interviewers’ reports. I later heard a story about someone who received 11 recommendation letters and was still hosed while someone with none was accepted. I also heard that the average score for this year’s admitted students was 44-45, meaning that they received 4s and 5s for all interviews. Han wrote, “From what I’ve observed, if Ivy bicker is a democratic process, it’s as democratic as the Electoral College—it’s technically not a fraud, but often things don’t quite add up.”

Bicker is often compared to fraternity and sorority “rush.” But such a comparison isn’t accurate. It’s a uniquely Princeton institution. The greatest difference between them is that Bicker occurs during the spring of sophomore year instead of the fall of freshman year. In rush, fraternity members have to base their selections on superficial personality characteristics because there is nothing else on which to judge. Contrastingly, Princeton students have already been in college for eighteen months by the time that they undergo Bicker. Many people in a particular club probably already know them. Consequently, this can hurt or help certain sophomores.

For the former, students may have already gained a bad reputation at a particular eating club for their conduct during a party or their prior actions in clubs, classes, and discussions. When these students enter Bicker, they’re dead in the water before they even step through the mansion’s lacquered doors. The club members already have their minds made up, and they will sink their candidacy during Bicker deliberations regardless of how well they performed during Bicker. Most famously, Ted Cruz was thrice hosed by Tower. No matter how hard he tried, the club didn’t want him.

For the latter, having the right affiliations can practically guarantee admission to certain eating clubs. A 2010 University report stated, “Student comments also focused on the role fraternities and sororities have developed as feeder mechanisms to particular selective clubs, to the point where students who enter Princeton with an interest in a particular club may join the fraternity or sorority associated with that club primarily to increase the likelihood that they will be admitted to the club.” This mentality has been acknowledged by club members themselves. In 2007, a Cottage member said to the Observer, “This club cares about affiliations.”

But there are also more subtle ways in which affiliations help with admissions to certain clubs. Cannon, for example, is known for being dominated by athletes. While students don’t play sports for the sake of getting into Cannon, the fact that their teammates are already in the club definitely helps their prospects for getting admitted.

Three years ago, a sophomore in the Department of Geosciences was frustrated by the number of his friends who were hosed. He created a survey with questions about the affiliation of newly selected eating club members and sent it to six clubs’ e-mail groups. Almost 500 students took the survey out of the approximately 1,300 students in the class of 2015. Although the survey wasn’t statistical perfection, the trends that it revealed shined a light on an otherwise murky subject.

At Ivy, 100 percent of the responding students who were members of Greek organizations got into the club and composed at least 25 percent of the newly chosen membership. At Cottage, 17/18 accepted responders reported playing a sport or being involved in Greek life. At Tower, Students in arts or political groups had higher acceptance rates than those in other activities.

Despite Bicker’s appearance as a social meritocracy, data and reports overwhelmingly indicate that it’s not. In other words, one’s performance in Bicker has little bearing on admission to a club. While this evidence doesn’t mean that there have never been students without affiliations who were admitted to a Bicker club, it does show that it’s not a process at which the average Joe off the street can “win.” One’s admission is often predestined long before choosing to Bicker.

In short, Bicker is a microcosm of the social dynamics — openly and tacitly — present on the Street.

Conclusion

The 2:15 PM New Jersey Transit line from Princeton Junction was rolling through the slums of Trenton on Friday afternoon. It was deserted. I couldn’t see a person in either car beside me. The Interclub Council had posted eating club placements at 9:00 AM, but I hadn’t looked.

I pulled out my phone and checked the results. The admissions page said in boldface at the top “Congratulations!” I scrolled down further to a table that listed the clubs’ names in the left column and the answer to the question “Am I a member?” in the right column. Ivy Club: No. Tower Club: No. I had been double hosed. And I didn’t care.

I laughed and starred out the window. Dilapidated houses and abandoned factories passed by. There are bigger problems in the world than not getting into your mansion of choice at Princeton University.

Prince Article 1, Prince Article 2, Prince Article 3

Photo Gallery