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When I started Harvard College, we were still fighting the Cold War.  It was the fall of 1989, right before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  I remember walking through my dorm that November: a friend had his door open and was telling everyone who passed the latest about the crowds spilling through the Berlin checkpoints.

Most of that autumn is a blur.  I vaguely remember doing homework in a random, slightly manic way.  I wrote papers.  I asked questions in class.  I faked being a college student until I could figure it out.  My course selection was equally jumbled.  I took 18th century French literature, modern political theory, and economics—I was trying to cover as many disciplines in as few classes as I could.

To fulfill a requirement, I also took a geology class called “Changing Surfaces of the Earth,” nicknamed “Rocks for Jocks” because it was supposedly so easy.  At the time, the nickname was accurate—the class was a fairly painless walk through plate tectonics, volcanoes, earthquakes, rivers, oceans, and sediment.  I actually liked studying how grains of sand moved over the sea floor, a process with the lyrical name of saltation.  Every time I’m in a plane watching the way the rivers below meander and twist in their channels, I think of that class. (more…)

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