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Utah Symposium in Science and Literature

Poet Claudia Rankine, physicist Brian Greene, and neuroscientist and artist Bevil Conway are the keynote speakers for this year’s Utah Symposium in Science and Literature, taking place from April 10-12 at the Eccles Alumni House on campus.

Claudia Rankine is the author of “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a New York Times bestseller, as well as four other books of poetry and three plays. She is the founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute, an NEA fellow, a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and a professor at NYU. Brian Greene is renowned for his groundbreaking discoveries in superstring theory and is known to the public through his books, “The Elegant Universe,” “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” and “The Hidden Reality,” which have collectively spent 65 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. He is a professor of physics and mathematics and the director of Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Physics. Bevil Conway is a senior investigator at the National Eye Institute and the National Institute of Mental Health, and an expert on the neuroscience of color. His artwork is in the Boston Public Library, the Fogg University Art Rental Collection, the N.I.H. Building 35 Public Art Collection, and many private collections.

The Utah Symposium returns this year after a long Covid hiatus, and will feature the involvement of U professors and grad students from numerous departments and disciplines, from English to math to music to philosophy. The theme of this year’s Symposium is “Mere Beauty,” a topic arising from the reexaminations of beauty occurring not only in the arts and humanities, but also in biology, where dominant theories about the possible evolutionary purposes of beauty are being questioned.

Co-chairs Fred Adler, Professor of Biology and Mathematics, and Katharine Coles, Distinguished Professor of English, developed the Symposium’s theme together. Coles explains, “In some ways, the topic of Beauty as a topic of interdisciplinary discussion and examination seems very abstract. However, I think it has become my favorite Symposium topic so far. It seems to touch on every discipline and, in many ways, on every aspect of our lives. Nature seems to have built us to respond to beauty; it’s hard not to wonder why.”

As part of their preparation for the Symposium, Coles and Adler are also co-teaching an undergraduate course on Beauty this spring, cross-listed in the English and Math Departments. Like the Symposium, the course seeks to use the common theme of beauty as a way to resolve the perceived rift between the “two cultures” of science and literature. Adler speaks fondly of the “remarkable students” enrolled in the class and gratifying challenges of its cross-disciplinary approach: “The English students are facing the trauma of making sense of math and physics and attempting to see the beauty therein. The Math students are facing the terror of making sense of complex poetry and attempting to see its beauty. And we are all taking on the collective challenge of reading philosophy to peek behind the curtain to ask what beauty is.” Coles adds, “Watching math students be overwhelmed by poetry and poets become overwhelmed by the beauties of math (me, too) has been one of the great pleasures of my teaching career.”

Both Adler and Coles anticipate that the Utah Symposium will foster the same spirit of exploration and cross-disciplinary understanding that their course has cultivated. Rankine, Greene, and Conway are recipients of some of the highest honors in their respective fields; the Symposium will provide the rare opportunity to bring them together for three days of fascinating discussion on the subject of Beauty right here on the University of Utah campus.

The Utah Symposium is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit