Exploring the Legendary Foundations of Ancient Vietnam; Identifying Exotic Woods with the ‘XyloPhone’; Giving Dairy Cows a Voice Through Science

Hi WN@TL Fans,

The Liberal Arts are under fire in many parts of the United States right now.  Luckily, the nine Muses are battle-hardened and they are slow to wither or flee.

Long ago I was corrected when I said I was majoring in science and thus I was not in the liberal arts.  O contraire, mon frere, I was informed: science and math have long been vital parts of the liberal arts, which are modern manifestations of the classical trivium and quadrivium — grammar, rhetoric, and logic, followed by arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

Somewhere along the line the phrase “liberal arts” got confused or conflated by some folks as synonymous with only the humanities and the fine & performing arts.  You can see the attempted exclusion of science from ‘the liberal arts’ even at major universities where we have examples of “Colleges of Liberal Arts & Sciences.”  These include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, UNC, Arizona State, Harvard, and UFlorida.  Florida is of note because Governor DeSantis has now invited students to go to Berkeley if they want to study “niche subjects like critical race theory” or “gender ideology.”  DeSantis added, “With our tax dollars, we want to focus on the classical mission of what a university is supposed to be.”

Ah, there’s the rub, as any English major can tell you:  what’s a public university supposed to be?   (And, not to be?)   I’m fond of Garrison Keillor’s take:  “American universities have seen plenty of radicals and revolutionaries come and go over the years, and all of them put together were not nearly so revolutionary as a land-grant university itself on an ordinary weekday. To give people with little money a chance to get the best education there is—that is true revolution.”

How we look at universities in general and at the liberal arts in specific affects what ideas we can learn and which ideas we can challenge. I’m pretty happy to point out that at UW-Madison the liberal arts are gathered together in the College of Letters & Science.  Here “science” encompasses the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the behavioral sciences.  They’re all part of an education geared towards keeping a free person free (and, perhaps, inspiring that free person to help make others to be free).

Tonight we get to hear from Nam C. Kim of the Department of Anthropology.  It’s apt timing for a week in which the cauldron is fired up.  I note that the Department of Anthropology writes on its website that “the research questions we investigate and the methods we use span the humanities, the social sciences, and the biological, cognitive, and evolutionary sciences.”  That is a span that inspires.


On May 17 Nam C. Kim of Anthropology returns to Wednesday Nite @ The Lab to speak on “Exploring the Legendary Foundations of Ancient Vietnam

Description:  In contemplating the foundations of cultural and historical identity, many people in Vietnam point to the Bac Bo (northern) region of the present-day country. Colorful tales describe the birth of powerful kingdoms over two thousand years ago in this region, and one of the most enduring accounts tells of the Au Lac Kingdom and its capital city, known as Co Loa. Situated in the Red River Valley, the defensive stronghold represents one of the earliest examples of urbanism in Southeast Asia. Its massive system of fortifications suggests unprecedented military power, as well as concerns over outside, predatory threats, namely the early empires of Chinese civilization. To this day, Co Loa holds a deep national significance as a national symbol of fabled dynasties and resistance against foreign aggression. This lecture presents new and ongoing archaeological research that addresses this fascinating early history of Vietnam. 

Bio:  Nam C. Kim is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the current Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies on its campus. He holds degrees in anthropology (PhD, University of Illinois at Chicago), political science (MA, New York University) and international relations (BA, University of Pennsylvania). 

As an anthropological archaeologist, he has conducted research in various countries. His research deals with early civilizations and the significance of the material past for modern-day stakeholders. He is especially interested in the archaeological history of organized violence and warfare. Since 2005 he has been conducting archaeological fieldwork in Vietnam at the Co Loa settlement in the Red River Delta. A heavily fortified site located near modern-day Hanoi, Co Loa is connected to Vietnamese legendary accounts and is viewed as an important foundation for Vietnamese civilization. 

Professor Kim’s work has been featured in various podcast interviews and a documentary (on the History Hit website). He has also authored several articles and books. The Origins of Ancient Vietnam (2015) provides a glimpse into the foundations of Vietnamese civilization, as seen through the archaeological record. Emergent Warfare in Our Evolutionary Past (2018, co-authored with Marc Kissel) provides a comprehensive view on the origins of war within the history of humanity. It seeks to answer questions about the antiquity of warfare, and whether or not organized violence is somehow innate within our species. 

Explore More: 


“Legendary Cổ Loa: Vietnam’s Ancient Capital” (2020). Interview with Tristan Hughes, part of History Hit TV’s podcast series The Ancients


Violence and Warfare in Humanity’s Past. Lecture given for PBS Wisconsin’s University Place (March 3, 2021)


Matters of the past mattering today. Oxford University Press Blog post, July 22. http://blog.oup.com/2016/07/vietnam-history-archaeology-heritage/

The Origins of Ancient Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2015)



On May 24 Alex Wiedenhoeft of the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Products Lab and of the Department of Botany will speak on “Magnifying & Identifying Exotic Woods Up Close with the Hand-held  XyloPhone” as he shares the literal insights provided by his invention that lets wood scientists use an iPhone to identify the species of wood at hand.

Bio:  My lab facilities are located at the US Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory on the west end of campus where I am a Research Botanist and Team Leader for the Center for Wood Anatomy Research. My team and I curate world’s largest and finest xylarium and conduct research on a range of topics related to wood, trees, and forests, including: the evolution of wood anatomical diversity in Croton; organellar microcapture from wood trace evidence; meso-scale characterization of wood properties and behavior; studies of structure-function relationships in wood products; and phenotypic characterization of high-value wood mutations. My lab is part of an interdisciplinary cooperation funded by the US Department of State and the Forest Service to develop an open source field-portable machine vision wood identification system, the XyloTron. XyloTron projects include developing regional identification models for in-country deployment, improvement of feature detection algorithms to automate the acquisition of wood anatomical data for basic scientific research, and data mining the ever-growing data set to improve XyloTron performance.

Explore More:  https://www.fs.usda.gov/research/treesearch/62840


On May 31 we wrap up May’s five Wednesday run with Jennifer Van Os of Animal & Dairy Science speaking on “Giving Cows a Voice Through Science.”

Description: Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland. How do we make sure our state’s dairy cows experience the best quality of life? We will discuss scientific frameworks and methods for understanding and evaluating the welfare of dairy cattle, including examples of research conducted here at UW-Madison.

Bio:  Jennifer Van Os is an Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Animal Welfare on the faculty of the Department of Animal & Dairy Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Van Os received her PhD in the interdisciplinary Animal Behavior graduate program at the University of California-Davis and conducted postdoctoral research in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia. The research in her lab at UW-Madison focuses on understanding, evaluating, and improving the welfare of dairy animals from biological- and social-science perspectives. The goal of Dr. Van Os’ extension program is to promote best practices in management and housing to help the dairy industry adapt as our scientific knowledge about animal welfare continues to grow.

Explore More: https://animalwelfare.cals.wisc.edu/