Men of Thesis Beard

What’s harder: writing a senior thesis or growing a nice beard?

Since early February, seniors Will Harrel (whom you might know as the guy who put President Shirley Tilghman in a snuggie) and Daniel Song have been on a mission to chronicle the day-to-day progress of their senior independent work and their facial hair with As we speak, they are on Day 19.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="539"] No sleep, no shave, until it’s done.[/caption]

I’ll be following these two around and checking in with them periodically for a Princeton Alumni Weekly video project on Seniors and their Theses Rituals (btw, hit me up if you have a tip of your own!), but here’s a quick preview profile of the men of the Bearded Thesis:

Name: Daniel Song ’13
Major: Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Thesis: How tribalism in Kenya shapes the way people view HIV/AIDS.
Facial Hair Problem Areas: Mustache won’t ever connect to chin beard. Also, his girlfriend, who says she is “neutral” on the beard, can’t help but cringe near it.
Thesis Problem Areas: Almost losing all his audio transcripts (thank god for backups!)
Longest Previous Record For Not Shaving: Several weeks during his time in Kenya.


Name: Will Harrel ’13
Major: Operations Research and Financial Engineering
Thesis: Game theory analysis of unanimous verdicts in 12-person jury trials.
Facial Hair Problem Areas: Mustache also won’t connect to beard. Gazing longingly at the razor.
Thesis Problem areas: Overnight coding turned up no solution! Oh no!
Longest Record for Not Shaving: Two weeks, so he’s now headed into unseen territory.

Good luck, guys!

If you or your senior friends are doing interesting theses (or interesting things in lieu of your thesis) and would like to be featured in a Princeton Alumni Weekly video, please email Vivienne Chen at vc[at]

The A-Bomb Kid (And How’s Your Senior Thesis Going?)

Seniors, here’s a thesis idea: how to build an operable atomic bomb.

Although it was a junior term paper and not his senior thesis, John Aristotle Phillips ’78 did just that.

A less than lackluster student and Tiger mascot, the physics major came across the paper idea as he was trying to think of ways he could not fail out of his seminar about nuclear disarmament. Over the course of a few weeks, Phillips consulted only publicly available material, like physics textbooks and government releases.

He even figured a simplistic way around the hardest and most complex part of making an atomic bomb– the detonation trigger. The final result: a 40-page guide to building an atomic weapon “more sophisticated than the Hiroshima bomb”. A little scary isn’t it?

It seems people at the time thought it was too, because the story went viral (in the newspaper-y, pre-internet sort of way) and people from California to Maine starting talking about the “A-Bomb Kid.” A 2003 article about Phillips describes the chaos like this:

“I remember telling him I would give him an A for it,” Dyson [Phillip’s professor] e-mails me, “but advised him to burn it as soon as the grade was registered.” Phillips was spared the trouble of procuring matches: The U.S. government kept his term paper and classified it. Soon Phillips was pursued by hack journalists and trench-coaters alike: The Pakistani embassy tried to get a copy; agents trailed him; the FBI and CIA got involved. Everything exploded.”

An alumnus who graduated eight years before Phillips, remembers the story first hand:

 “Nobody around at the time will ever forget him. The perfect poster wonk for the Cold War, he brought out the combined confusion and frustration of the post-Vietnam era via the bold and breathtakingly insightful act of … submitting his term paper.”

And in case you were curious, Phillips did end up getting an A in the class.

So seniors, as you continue (or, for you bad procrastinators, begin) writing your senior theses, try to beat out the A-Bomb Kid for the wackiest thesis ever.

Weekend Arts Roundup: Intime, Improv, and More

monkeys-hdr_lrgTwo weeks in (doesn’t it feel longer?) and campus arts events are up and running! As the semester goes into full swing, this batch of events is the perfect antidote to daunting workloads and overtired brains:

  • Theatre Intime, Princeton’s oldest entirely student-run theater company, starts its 2011-2012 season with Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers, directed by sophomore Eric Traub.  Part comic coming-of-age story and part family drama, this Pulitzer-Prize-winning play is one of Simon’s best, and features an all-star student cast. Thursday-Saturday at 8pm in Theatre Intime: tickets $8, Student Events Eligible.
  • The Department of Music’s Making Tunes concert series, which features a range of international musicians who blend traditional and improvisatory folk music traditions, continues its second week with Appalachian fiddle player Bruce Molsky.  The Tunes series’ first concert was completely sold out, so buying ahead is a smart move: tickets are available at Frist or via phone at 609-258-9220, and the event is Student Events Eligible.  Thursday at 8pm in Taplin Auditorium at Fine Hall.
  • 319614_2211111437472_1238070354_32620346_719421329_nIf you’re hoping to glimpse the next Amy Poehler or Ed Helms, don’t miss The UCB Touring Company’s one-night improv comedy show at McCarter Theatre, sponsored by Quipfire! improv troupe.  Friday at 11pm; free admission, but get there early to get a good seat! It’s sure to fill up fast.
  • Princeton’s Program in Theater opens its season with The Monkeys Are Coming!, a Russian avant-garde drama directed by senior Gabe Crouse as part of his senior thesis.  First published in 1923, the play appears here in a brand-new translation by several professors in Princeton’s Slavic Department.  It’s a genre-bending (and brain-bending) performance–and its 50-minute length makes it perfect for a pre-Street study break.  Friday and Saturday at 8pm in Matthews Acting Studio at the Lewis Center for the Arts (185 Nassau Street); student tickets $10, Student Events Eligible.
  • Speaking of theses, seniors Eddie Skolnick and Jeff Hodes will present an All-Mozart Senior Thesis Recital for the Music Department’s Performance Program on Saturday at 8pm in Taplin Auditorium.  Skolnick will play and conduct Mozart’s Adagio in E for Violin and Orchestra and his Violin Concerto No. 3; Hodes will perform and conduct Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto; and both musicians will be backed by a fifteen-person student chamber orchestra.  Free admission, with a reception to follow.

Weekend Arts Roundup: A Capella and Theater Galore

192732_10150123172839626_501629625_6134099_6315723_oA big weekend ahead for the arts at Princeton!  Give yourself a couple hours to relax after an epically long (and snowy…sigh) first week back:

  • In the mood for a (literally) epic evening of opera? Theo Popov ’11’s senior thesis with the Music department, called Nero Artifex, is an original chamber opera based on the life of the famous Roman emperor.  Written entirely in Latin by seniors Mariah Min and Veronica Shi (it has subtitles projected onstage), it’s shaping up to be an extremely exciting production, and has involved over fifty student actors, designers, musicians, and backstage hands. Thursday and Friday only, 8pm in Richardson Auditorium at Alexander Hall. Admission is free.
  • If family dramedy’s more your thing, check out Emma Watt ’13’s production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, a semiautobiographical play by Neil Simon about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn in the 1930s.  Not intrigued yet?  The play’s scenes about growing up (think two teenage boys desperate to see their cute girl cousin naked) are priceless.  Thursday-Saturday at 8pm in Theatre Intime; the show will also play next weekend. Tickets $8 at the door, student events eligible.
  • Nuns, mistaken identities, a psychotic wife named Bananas, sixties costumes that look straight out of Mad Men…John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves, featuring Brad Baron ’11 as his senior acting thesis for the Theater department, has all that and more.  This weekend and next; Friday and Saturday at 8pm in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center.  Tickets $10, student events eligible.

Continue reading…

Anonymous Thesis

[caption id="attachment_8347" align="alignleft" width="249" caption="image source:"]image source:[/caption]

Dearest seniors,

As you work through all those intellectual and logistical hurdles of thesis chapter drafts, remember the words your third-grade teacher would chant before every spelling test: “Put your name at the top of the page.” Below is an email sent out to English seniors after one hurried (or humble?) (or ashamed?) senior submitted a nameless thesis chapter to the department:

Subject: Draft

Someone dropped off a 20-page thesis draft w/o a name.  It is titled “The Blood Cycle.”   Who are you?

Best, Marcia

It seems Princeton won’t let this thesis exist among its peers—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A Woman in Berlin—as an authorless document. Keep chipping away at those pages, thesis fairy. You won’t walk out of the gates without a name. But if you slip some thesis pages under my pillow, I won’t ask questions.

What did your senior thesis ever do: CDY edition

Comic Sans gets a lot of crap. But hard-to-read fonts like Comic Sans and Bodoni may help students learn more, according to a new study in Cognition.

By “a new study in Cognition,” we mean Connor Diemand-Yauman’s senior thesis.

He may have been eliminated from the Amazing Race, but his senior thesis is starting to attract media attention. The psychology thesis involved testing the ability of students to memorize facts about “aliens.” Some students were given information in 16-pt. black Arial, which is generally considered easy to read. Other students were given information in 12-pt. Comic Sans or 12-pt. Bodoni in 75 percent greyscale. They were then distracted for 15 minutes and tested on what they could remember.

From the BBC:

Researchers found that, on average, those given the harder-to-read fonts actually recalled 14% more.

They believe that presenting information in a way that is hard to digest means a person has to concentrate more, and this leads to “deeper processing” and then “better retrieval” afterwards.

How’d You Like Your History Thesis to Undergo a Supreme Court Grilling?

[caption id="attachment_6603" align="alignright" width="289" caption="Look at our little Tiger go! (source:"]Look at our little Tiger go! (source:[/caption]

As discussions keep going strong about last week’s Elena Kagan ’81 nomination, the White House has announced that it will publish Kagan’s undergraduate thesis from Princeton’s Department of History.  This announcement was made after the right-wing site RedState had illegally posted her “socialist thesis” last week; apparently, Kagan (and not ‘ole Nassau) holds the copyright for her undergraduate work.  Her graduate thesis from Oxford will also be released.  A White House official explained:

In addition to requesting an expedited release of the documents from the Clinton White House detailed in [White House counsel Bob] Bauer’s letter, the White House will make available copies of Kagan’s theses from Princeton and Oxford. These documents were not specifically requested by the Judiciary Committee in the questionnaire, but demonstrating our commitment to transparency, they will be made available to the committee and the public regardless.

The thesis can now be accessed online: read away, if you have a few days to spare (as we all clearly do during exam week. Duh.). Or check out the Prince’s Cliff Notes version from earlier in the month if you’re a tad short on time. Read Politico’s full story on the theses releases here. For a more sympathetic take on how college kids are supposed to write theses that are naive and inflammatory (and not meant to be read out of context), head over to Slate, where Christopher Beam wrote a great piece yesterday about how “college is all about screwing up.” Sweet music to our ears, Chris…

So you want to be a Supreme Court justice…

Screen shot 2010-04-26 at 12.26.31 AMSotomayoralitoObama

[from left to right: Kagan ’81, Sotomayor ’76, Alito ’72, and Obama ’85]

Do you plan on becoming a Supreme Court justice? Do you plan on becoming famous?

If so, do yourself a favor: Write your thesis on the most mundane, non-controversial topic possible.

Specifically, don’t write about:

  • Scary foreign lands (i.e. Puerto Rico)
    • Last year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 got a lot of flack for some of the views she espoused in her thesis, La Historia Ciclica de Puerto Rico. The Impact of the Life of Luis Munoz Marin on the Political and Economic History of Puerto Rico, 1930-1975, which came in at a whopping 178 pages.
    • And if you think you’re out of the woods after getting your final thesis grade, think twice. The National Journal had another professor regrade Sotomayor’s thesis 33 years later! The professor’s conclusion?: “the thesis would probably receive an A/A minus or an A minus.”
  • Scary topics Americans are scared of (i.e. socialism)
    • As we mentioned last week, Solicitor General (and leading Supreme Court nominee contender) Elena Kagan ’81 is also getting criticized for her senior thesis, To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933. The Weekly Standard stated last summer, “Her political sympathies (at the time) seem quite clear — and radical.” Uh oh!
    • No word yet whether anyone will regrade Kagan’s thesis, but then again, she hasn’t been nominated yet.
  • Minority groups (i.e. Princeton-educated blacks)
    • And don’t you remember the media storm over the thesis First Lady Michelle Obama ’85 wrote? (Full text here.) Her thesis, Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community, compared black Princetonians’ identification with the black community while at Princeton and afterwards as alumni.
    • While Obama’s thesis wasn’t regraded, some pundits criticized her writing anyway.’s Christopher Hitchens wrote, “To describe it as hard to read would be a mistake; the thesis cannot be ‘read’ at all, in the strict sense of the verb. This is because it wasn’t written in any known language.” Ouch.

Seriously, after all the flack Obama ’85, Sotomayor ’76, and now Kagan ’81 have received for their theses, it just doesn’t seem worth the trouble! So I implore you future-famous Princetonians: Write about really boring stuff.

Just look at the nomination (and confirmation) of Justice Samuel Alito ’72. His thesis, An Introduction to the Italian Constitutional Court, was apparently sufficiently boring enough to preclude any media circus in 2005. Of course, there was that whole CAP (Concerned Alumni of Princeton) thing. So if you want to become a Supreme Court justice, try not to join any racist/sexist organizations, too.

Click here for Part 2.

(image source:;;

Recommendations to Die For

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="235" caption="image source:"]image source:[/caption]

Every year, the University sends out “The Thesis: Quintessentially Princeton” to incoming freshman and rising seniors. This booklet is meant to give students a taste of the thesis-writing process, and it contains the perspectives of several ’02 Princeton graduates and their thesis advisers. As you seniors trudge through the final weeks and days of your writing process, here’s the best and worst of what you can hope your advisor to say about his/her experience with you:

  • “Advising Matt was a stimulating experience, from our first conversation to his outstanding oral presentation. My only regret is that I have no way of making Matt’s thesis required reading for every member of the United States Congress.” – Professor Peter Singer about Matt Frazier ’02.
  • “Some senior theses are much more enjoyable to supervise than others. The ones that are most frustrating typically begin with something like, ‘Hello professor, I was told to come see you. I don’t know what you teach, but could you give me an idea to work on for my thesis?’ Then the student toys with one idea after another until sometime in January, panics, and works frantically to catch up. Those are usually the students, too, who have somehow failed during their first three years at Princeton to learn how to use the library.” – Professor Robert Wuthnow

If you’ve got a renowned ethicist recommending your thesis to Congress, you should be golden. If you fear you may be in the category of advisees Wuthnow speaks of, get thee to a library!