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May 21, 2008

Subway Riders Invited to Take a More Elevated Line of Thought
Special from The Record

Move over, Dr. Z.

Starting this month—thanks to some expert guidance from Columbia’s Arts and Sciences faculty—millions of New York City bus and subway riders will have a diversion from those ubiquitous advertisements for the Manhattan dermatologist Jonathan Zizmor.

The Train of Thought ad featuring Galileo, now showing in a subway car near you.
The Train of Thought ad featuring Galileo, now showing in a subway car near you.
(Click image above for larger photo)

In a new series of advertisements that run on subways and buses, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has unveiled Train of Thought, which will feature excerpts and quotations from some of the world’s greatest minds—each selected by experts at Columbia.

“Since we are ‘Columbia University in the City of New York,’ it is appropriate that we bring these great achievements to the streets, or in this case, below the streets, of our city,” says Henry C. Pinkham, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), who has appointed a committee of Columbia experts to pick what editorial content should be on the ads. “Of course, the subway permits only tiny excerpts to be posted. But it gets people thinking about big ideas and that’s exactly what a university should do for people.”

One of the first Train of Thought excerpts is from the book Here Is New York, E.B. White’s 1948 love letter to the city, on the special character of New York City and its people. White, the former New Yorker essayist, is best known as the author of Charlotte’s Web. The other selection is from 16th-century Italian astronomer and scientist Galileo on the centrality of mathematics to science. The ads will be illustrated with original images from Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

“The project is consonant with Columbia’s tradition of engaging directly with the primary texts marking great intellectual achievements,” Pinkham says.

The campaign replaces the Poetry in Motion ads that have appeared on New York City subways and buses since 1992. The new series is an opportunity to broaden the scope and content of the Sub Talk advertisements, says the MTA. “New Yorkers have wideranging interests, and we felt that we could include material from a variety of other disciplines, in addition to poetry, to bring important, engaging, insightful quotes to our riders,” says Alicia Martinez, MTA’s director of marketing and corporate communications.

Columbia was the first, and only, choice when it came to coming up with the content for the ads. “There was no formal search process,” says MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. Indeed, it was Columbia University alumni working at MTA who informally proposed Columbia’s involvement to Pinkham. “I have been, over the years, a great admirer of Poetry in Motion, so I was thrilled when the MTA came to GSAS with the idea of broadening Poetry in Motion to all forms of literature, philosophy, history and science,” Pinkham says.

To help choose what should be used in the series, Pinkham set up a committee of faculty members and administrators to propose selections, which then go to the MTA for approval. Selections for the next year have already been chosen—just don’t ask Pinkham what they are. “I do not want to divulge them,” he says.

The next two ads arrive July 1 and will feature quotations from the fields of philosophy and literature. Funding for production of the program is provided by Barnes & Noble. Two new quotations from different disciplines will be posted every three months.

Story by LaVenia LaVelle