70 years ago, Albert Einstein convened the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in Princeton, New Jersey, to warn the public about the development of nuclear weapons. Today, a new generation of concerned scientists is hoping to warn the public about a different set of dangers.
The new generation is led by people like Sebastien Philippe, a doctoral student at Princeton University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who focuses on nuclear arms control. He founded the Princeton Citizen Scientists, a group of graduate students, a day after the presidential election. The first event on their agenda was a Day of Action on Monday.
“We were shocked by the rhetoric of the campaign,” Philippe explained, referring to President Trump’s divisive policies. “The fear was that the rhetoric from the campaign would actually become policies.” The Day of Action was meant to empower students with teach-ins about climate change, Islamophobia, and the proposed border wall, among others.
“This is an exercise in practical democracy,” Philippe said. The event drew more than 500 students, and included more than 60 teach-ins led by faculty and students.
The day began with a town hall meeting. “We hope that today you will be inspired,” Philippe said to a crowd that included students, faculty and community members. “We hope you will find people with common interests, but also people to argue with.”
“A university is about arguing and debating,” he explained. “This day is an open platform for all members of our community.”
When Philippe called for the formation of the Citizen Scientists the day after the elections, he was overwhelmed by the response. The first meeting of the organization drew dozens of participants from every science department at Princeton. Today, members include also scholars in the social sciences and the humanities.
The University did not officially endorse the event. Philippe met with Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, early in the planning process. “He was cautious at first,” Philippe said. “He’s under tremendous pressure to keep his position balanced.” But in subsequent meetings with University officials, the organization received support and encouragement.
“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of government,” said Zia Mian, co-director of Princeton’s program on science and global security. “It is the responsibility of academics to speak the truth.”
More than 1200 members of the Princeton community eventually signed a letter in support of the Day of Action, including over a hundred faculty members. “It’s a call that a lot of people have been waiting for,” explained Paul Gauthier, head of public relations for the Citizen Scientists.
Teach-ins were organized by a variety of student groups, and held inside Princeton’s Frist Student Center. “We made it a point to reach out to students from the entire political spectrum,” Philippe said
The Princeton Open Campus Coalition, an undergraduate student group committed to free speech, hosted a talk on academic diversity, which featured William Happer, a physics professor at Princeton who is known for denying the potential harm of climate change.
“CO2 is increasing, nobody disputes that,” Happer said during his talk. “But if the planet needs anything, it’s more CO2.”
Happer’s views were met with skepticism, but the crowd in the room was overflowing. “It’s an exercise in free speech,” explained Mikhael Smits, a junior at Princeton and a member of the Open Campus Coalition. “The turnout reflects the value we offered.”
“Our group doesn’t share the views of Professor Happer, but none of us question his right to be on the faculty,” Smits said.
While the Day of Action was largely centered on an anti-Trump agenda, the crowd in attendance was diverse. “Republicans have plenty of valid ideas to add to such a discussion,” said John Zarrilli, president of the Princeton College Republicans. “It’s important to have a well-informed citizenry.”
“We have a very diverse range of opinions with regards to Trump,” Zarrilli said. “Trump has done some positive things so far,” he said, but admitted that some of his policies, included the newly revised Muslim ban, are “definitely negative.”
The Princeton College Republicans recently issued a statement condemning Trump’s Muslim Ban. “We need to empathize more with minority communities,” Zarrilli said, calling the ban “antithetical to our American values.”
Zarrilli described Princeton as a very “open” campus. “I’ve never had a problem expressing my opinion,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re vocal enough.”
The Day of Action called on students to raise their voices on issues important to them. In an afternoon session, civil rights scholar Cornel West spoke about the importance of community organizing.
“We’re living in a very terrifying moment,” West said, calling Trump “a gangster in character and a neo-fascist in content.”
“We are seeing the best of fellow human beings in the United States,” West added, referring to the Women’s March and other large rallies that have taken place since the election. “The problem simply is, we’re not winning. That’s why organizing is important.”
The day concluded with another town hall meeting. “We’re at the forefront of a movement far bigger than Princeton,” said Nicholas Wu, a junior at Princeton and a leader of the Princeton Advocates for Justice, an undergraduate group that cosponsored the event.
According to Philippe, students from universities across the country have expressed interest in hosting similar events. “We want to set an example for other campuses,” he stated.
Roger Levy, professor of cognitive science at MIT, attended Princeton’s event and stated that a Day of Action is already planned at MIT. “We can think of this as an experiment in 21st century democracy,” Levy said during the closing session. “We have been a part of creating a new kind of norm.”