July 3, 2013

Ideas Fest notebook: Stephen Breyer, Lester Crown and the planetarium

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Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Harmony in the court

The U.S. Supreme Court isn’t nearly as divided as you might think, Justice Stephen Breyer told an Aspen Ideas Festival crowd at Greenwald Pavilion on Tuesday morning.

Last week’s landmark decisions on gay marriage and the Voting Rights Act came down to 5-4 splits, and drew more media attention than the other 71 decisions the high court made in the recently concluded term. Overall, though, Breyer and his colleagues agree a lot more than they disagree.

They decided 60 percent of cases last term unanimously. Just about 30 percent were 5-4. He said media coverage of the close decisions has given the public a skewed perspective of the court.

“Perhaps newspapers want to sell newspapers,” he said.

Breyer, who carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his jacket pocket and brandished it during an hour-long public interview with Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, spoke extensively about how he handles judges and lawyers from abroad who ask for advice on upholding the rule of law in places like Tunisia and Ghana.

He said the court relies largely on citizens here to uphold the rule of law. As an example, he spoke about the court’s 5-4 ruling that gave George W. Bush the presidency, which he characterized Tuesday as a “wrong decision.” A full half of the country disagreed, he noted, yet the citizenry maintained peace, unlike in many other nations after contested elections.

“It was very unpopular but there were no guns, no paving stones killing people,” he noted.

Addressing the often-debated topic of bringing television cameras into the Supreme Court for oral arguments, Breyer said he and his colleagues are wary of televising their proceedings because it might change the behavior of future judges and limit the court’s effectiveness.

“None of us wants to be the one who made the decision to wreck it,” he said.

Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News


Lester Crown on Israel

In introducing Crown family patriarch Lester Crown Tuesday, Walter Isaacson it was “the ultimate moment” for him at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival.

The big meeting room in the Doerr-Hosier building was packed with people, including many members of the extended Crown family, who were there to hear Crown discuss “Perspectives on the U.S. and Israel.”

Isaacson said Crown “has been the heart and soul” of the Aspen Institute.

“This place exists because of now four generations of members of the Crown family,” Isaacson said. The family also owns the Aspen Skiing Co.

After the introduction, Atlantic correspondent Jeff Goldberg went for a laugh.

“Thank you very much and I want to welcome all to Lester’s bar mitzvah,” Goldberg began. “We’re going to clear tables in a little while and all the Crowns are going to dance a hora.”

Goldberg then said that Crown was one of “the most-important American Jewish leaders of the post-World War II era” and was a “central figure” when it came to understanding American Jewish support of Israel.

Crown, 88, is the son of industrialist Henry Crown and the grandson of Arie Krinsky, who immigrated to America from Lithuania in the 1880s and later changed the family name to Crown.

“The perpetuation of Judaism was essential within the family,” Crown said.

Crown was a teenager during World War II and remembers his father, as early as 1942, discussing the concentration camps in Europe.

“The conversation at home was the frustration of not being in a position, actually, of influence in order to be able to influence the United States to do more,” Crown said. “With that knowledge, they tried to do anything that they could to be of help to have Jews get out of Germany.”

Those family conversations led Crown, who was listed for years on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, to become a major benefactor to Israel.

“To even talk about the idea that there would a state that welcomed Jews from everywhere — to have a safe haven — was just an absolute dream,” Crown said. “We were involved from day one in the raising of money for Israel.”

Crown said Tuesday he thinks that Israel needs to move settlers out of the West Bank, Palestinians should have their own state, Jews should make peace with the broader Arab world, and Iran should be prevented from developing nuclear weapons.

“The Iranian thing has to be solved,” Crown said. “If they have nuclear weapons — they won’t use them on Israel — but they’ll become the bully in the area to our detriment, and Israel’s.”

In expressing his support for Israel, Crown said “there are only 14 million Jews in the world. And 5.5 million are in Israel, 5.5 million of them are in the United States,”

“And three million are in this room,” Goldberg quipped.

Later, Karim Kawar, the former ambassador to the U.S. from Jordan, stood up to introduce himself and ask Crown a question.

“I’m probably the only Arab in this whole room,” Kawar said.

“Oh, I doubt it,” Goldberg replied.

“If you had to have one in the room, this is the best,” Crown joked.

– Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

The Buckminster Fuller dome at the Aspen Institute served very well as a planetarium during Ideas Festival.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

The Buckminster Fuller dome at the Aspen Institute served very well as a planetarium during Ideas Festival.Smith / Aspen Journalism


Spinning the big blue ball

Standing in the dark in front of a floor-to-ceiling view of the earth at night, Bob Raynolds explained how the white parts of the globe showed where people with electricity lived and worked.

And he noted that where people had electricity, their children could read at night, get educated, make economic progress and eventually enjoy eating shrimp and drinking white wine, as people do at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

And so where you see lights at night on the globe, you also tend to find shrimp and white wine, he said.

No lights, as in most of Africa and in large swaths of Asia, no shrimp.

Then, showing a very brightly lit America, Raynolds said it’s not clear how well our hearty shrimp and wine habit will work out for our grandchildren.

The inside of the planetarium during Ideas Fest was a mind-altering place.

Michael Brands / Aspen Institute

The inside of the planetarium during Ideas Fest was a mind-altering place.

The planetarium was a new addition to the Ideas Fest. It was installed for the week at a cost of about $50,000 in a 1952 Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome that had been rehabilitated several years ago by the Aspen Institute and placed behind Paepcke Auditorium.

The dome functioned really well as a visually stunning theater that could accommodate 70 people sitting and lying down in front of a curved screen, 35-feet wide and 20-feet tall.

Presentations included both films and interactive sessions about either deep space or the spaceship Earth.

Raynolds, a research associate at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, is also a well-traveled geologist with a droll sense of humor.

And he was fully entertaining a loose after-cocktail-party crowd on Saturday night.

After taking a question from the dark recesses of the dome, Raynolds would then roll the digital earth around and zoom incredibly far in and see exactly why the lights were on someplace.

The lights in the northwest corner of North Dakota, for example, are actually from gas being flared in a regional expanse of oil fields.

“What people really like is to see their own context, and they can see it at different scales,” Raynolds said “Some people are smitten by their place in the galaxy, while other people want to know what’s over the hill, and we can show them both using the dome.”

Often driving the rich computer images rotating above Raynolds’ head was Dr. Ka Chun Yu, a founder of Worldviews Network, who worked with a group called The Elumenati to turn the dome into a planetarium.

“We’re getting exponentially increasing amounts of data about the earth from remote sensing satellites, and at the same time we have the technology that increasingly makes it easier to visualize that data,” Yu said.

After the audience left Saturday at 8 p.m., Raynolds, a glass of white wine in hand, continued exploring the globe with his colleagues until midnight.

They visited many places, including the Congo River, Mount Everest, Machu Picchu, and Mogadishu — where there are remarkably few lights, or shrimp.

– Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of the Aspen Ideas Festival. The Daily News published a version of this story on July 3, 2013.

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