From the Issue: Navel Gazing

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Be on the lookout for the February issue of The Blue & White, on campus now! Bwog will again honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting features from the upcoming issue. Such treats include the first part of a discussion on the Columbia School, an investigation into Columbia’s animal testing practices, and a talk about, well, self-pleasure. Here, senior editor Conor Skelding recounts a mystical journey to a far-off land: the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Illustration by Liz Lee, CC '12

Imagine the Steps on a bright spring day—all the people chattering, surrounded by sun and bright neoclassical buildings—and then turn all of that on its head. This will give you some sense of the atmosphere of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). The satellite research unit is one of the world’s leading institutions studying the “origin, evolution and future of the natural world.” It stands on Columbia’s science campus in the Palisades, stuck between forests to the east and Highway 9W to the west. The shuttle, a coach bus which departs from Teacher’s College, runs over the GWB and up 9W for about 20 minutes. Its seats are sparsely populated by scientists and graduate students. Turning off of the highway and onto the campus access road, the shuttle is waved past a guard post, towards the parking lots.

The tired vehicle passes a half-mile of parking lots on both sides of the access road before hitting campus. Or, at least, some of it. Unlike Morningside Heights, LDEO has no unified plan, no aesthetic norm, and no fixed boundary. In Morningside, even unsightly buildings like CEPSR and Lerner make abortive, red-brick references to McKim, Mead & White (the architecture firm responsible for Columbia’s neoclassical design).

Rather, LDEO’s low, sprawling campus is a mishmash of buildings. There are a number of squat, one-story, aluminum sided structures. There is Geology, two stories of black brick; there is a modern glass building which betrays fundamental disparities of funding. There are several single-floor buildings made from dirty, yellow, vomit-colored brick. One steel-glass building, Comer Seismology, boasts a naturally lit interior, a generally “scientific vibe,” and cleaner bathrooms than its neighbors. Next to it stands an American Reinvestment Act funding sign—a legally required nod to President Obama’s 2009, $787 billion stimulus package. Comer has a porch with steel furniture for a common area; other structures only campy wooden picnic tables on brown grass. Other, humbler, edifices lack the same attention. Some were clearly constructed only a few years ago; others are leftovers from the ’70s.

These diverse, sometimes dilapidated buildings are divided by wide, browning, lawns. Concrete paths devoid of people slice through the expanses of grass between buildings. For all the hundreds of cars, there is nobody in sight: the only signs of life came from the occasional smoker or shuttle rider. The air was empty save for the ambient, low thrum of ventilators or heavy machinery, and the road-hum of an occasional car passing through one of the interior roads.

In both the immediate and final estimation, LDEO is not Morningside. But then, it doesn’t want or have to be. It is not an undergraduate cam- pus, nor does it have a residential student body. Instead, it has postdoctoral researchers, PhD can- didates, and a few accomplished undergraduates, with whom I rode the bus. These academics are going to work, driving to the office. They’re not lecturing undergrads and holding office hours; they’re doing research to secure grants to do more research. LDEO isn’t one united campus; it’s divided departments, each observing the earth in their own special way.

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  1. Anonymous

    scientific vibe. word.

  2. Anonymous

    Sorry about it being winter and all. Come back in a week, the grass will be less brown and the Frisbee players more numerous.

  3. Correction

    Comer Geochemistry, not seismology. Seismology is another building.

    That concludes my specific fact correction contribution.

    For a more complete listing of errors in understanding of the nature of LDEO, please speak to anyone who has been up there more than once on a mid-day shuttle and walked around.

  4. Lisa  

    I am very curious when this person made their visit to Lamont. Sure if it was a Thursday morning during spring break, or something, I can understand their impression. No, you won't find hoardes of undergrads sunbathing or anything, but walk through the heart of the campus around lunchtime and you will find plenty of people sitting at picnic tables chatting with friends from other departments, not mention people playing soccer, volleyball, basketball, or football all afternoon. And what's the obsession with the brown grass?? It's March! LDEO doesn't cover it's lawns with white, put up flags to keep people from ripping it up some playing sports, and generally pamper them the way the grass is treated on Morningside, but it will be plenty green once it's not WINTER anymore. And the fact that "LDEO isn’t one united campus; it’s divided departments..." is inferred entirely from looking at the buildings, I guess? Certainly not by bothering to ask anyone about their collaborations, the weekly campus-wide Colloquium, TGIF, Grad Student Tea, sports, yoga, community garden...

    • cc alum

      Yes to everything in Lisa's comment.

      This article isn't very useful in that it doesn't give any discussion as to what is actually done at LDEO. I would expect a piece about a scientific institution to have some mention of science, not just a discussion of architecture and landscape.

      Most egregious is the claim that LDEO "isn't one united campus": beyond all the many social events Lisa mentions, the cross-disciplinary research done at LDEO is one of its unique traits that has led to its rich history of innovations and makes it stand a cut ahead of more classically-structured peer institutions.

  5. Lisa  

    Beautiful sketch of Comer though!

  6. Anonymous  

    The picture looks like it belongs at the beginning of a Harry Potter chapter! well done

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