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Past Salons & Lectures

SCIENCE SALON # 13
Dr. Walter Scheidel — The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century

Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, the Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The “Four Horsemen” of leveling—mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues—have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.

An essential contribution to the debate about inequality, The Great Leveler provides important new insights about why inequality is so persistent—and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon.

Order The Great Leveler from Amazon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 12
Dr. Andrew Shtulman — Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong

Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong (book cover) Dr. Andrew Shtulman (photo by Max S. Gerber)

Photo by Max S. Gerber

Why do we catch colds? What causes seasons to change? And if you fire a bullet from a gun and drop one from your hand, which bullet hits the ground first? In a pinch we almost always get these questions wrong. Worse, we regularly misconstrue fundamental qualities of the world around us. In Scienceblind, cognitive and developmental psychologist Dr. Andrew Shtulman, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Occidental College, where he directs the Thinking Lab, shows that the root of our misconceptions lies in the theories about the world we develop as children. They’re not only wrong, they close our minds to ideas inconsistent with them, making us unable to learn science later in life.

So how do we get the world right? We must dismantle our intuitive theories and rebuild our knowledge from its foundations. The reward won’t just be a truer picture of the world, but clearer solutions to many controversies—around vaccines, climate change, or evolution—that plague our politics today.

Order Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong from Amazon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 11
Dr. Lawrence Krauss — The Greatest Story Ever Told…So Far: Why Are We Here?

Q&A

In the beginning there was light.
But more than this, there was gravity.
After that, all hell broke loose.

Internationally renowned, award-winning theoretical physicist, New York Times bestselling author of A Universe from Nothing, and passionate advocate for reason, Lawrence Krauss tells the dramatic story of the discovery of the hidden world of reality—a grand poetic vision of nature—and how we find our place within it.

In a landmark, unprecedented work of scientific history, Krauss leads us to the furthest reaches of space and time, to scales so small they are invisible to microscopes, to the birth and rebirth of light, and into the natural forces that govern our existence. His unique blend of rigorous research and engaging storytelling invites us into the lives and minds of the remarkable, creative scientists who have helped to unravel the unexpected fabric of reality—with reason rather than superstition and dogma. Krauss has himself been an active participant in this effort, and he knows many of them well. The Greatest Story Ever Told…So Far challenges us to re-envision ourselves and our place within the universe, as it appears that “God” does play dice with the universe. In the incisive style of his scintillating essays for The New Yorker, Krauss celebrates the greatest intellectual adventure ever undertaken—to understand why we are here in a universe where fact is stranger than fiction.

Order The Greatest Story Ever Told from Amazon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 10
Dr. Carol Tavris — Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

Why is it so hard to say “I made a mistake”—and really believe it? Social psychologist Dr. Carol Tavris, one of the most influential thinkers and writers of our time, explores in dialogue with Michael Shermer cognitive dissonance and what happens when we make mistakes, cling to outdated attitudes, or mistreat other people—we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so, unconsciously, we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong. Backed by years of research, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-justification—how it works, the damage it can cause, and how we can overcome it. The updated edition of the book features new examples and concludes with an extended discussion of how we can live with dissonance, learn from it, and perhaps, eventually, forgive ourselves.

Order Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) from Amazon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 9
Gary Taubes — The Case Against Sugar

The Case Against Sugar (book cover) Gary Taubes (photo by Kirsten Lara Getchell)

Photo by Kirsten Lara Getchell

Among Americans, diabetes is more prevalent today than ever; obesity is at epidemic proportions; nearly 10% of children are thought to have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. And sugar is at the root of these, and other, critical society-wide, health-related problems. With his signature command of both science and straight talk, Gary Taubes delves into Americans’ history with sugar: its uses as a preservative, as an additive in cigarettes, the contemporary overuse of high-fructose corn syrup. He explains what research has shown about our addiction to sweets. He clarifies the arguments against sugar, corrects misconceptions about the relationship between sugar and weight loss; and provides the perspective necessary to make informed decisions about sugar as individuals and as a society.

This is a groundbreaking and eye opening expose that makes the convincing case that sugar is the tobacco of the new millennium, backed by powerful lobbies, entrenched in our lives, and utterly addicting, making us all very sick. As Katie Couric says, “This is required reading for not only ever parent, but every American.” Gary Taubes is the New York Times bestselling author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat. His writing has appeared in the New York Times magazine, The Atlantic, and Esquire.

Order The Case Against Sugar from Amazon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 8
Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan — Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal The Cosmos

Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal The Cosmos (book cover) Priyamvada Natarajan (photo by Gabe Miller)

Photo by Gabe Miller

Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan is a cosmologist and theoretical astrophysicist from Yale University, specializing in dark matter, dark energy, and black holes. She also holds the Sophie and Tycho Brahe Professorship of the Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She is passionate about sharing science with the general public and in her new book she provides a tour of the “greatest hits” of cosmological discoveries—the ideas that reshaped our universe over the past century. The cosmos, once understood as a stagnant place, filled with the ordinary, is now a universe that is expanding at an accelerating pace, propelled by dark energy and structured by dark matter. Priyamvada Natarajan is at the forefront of this research—an astrophysicist who literally creates maps of invisible matter in the universe. In the book, she not only explains for a wide audience the science behind these essential ideas but also provides an understanding of how radical scientific theories gain acceptance. The formation and growth of black holes, dark matter halos, the accelerating expansion of the universe, the echo of the big bang, the discovery of exoplanets, and the possibility of other universes—these are some of the puzzling cosmological topics of the early twenty-first century. Natarajan discusses why the acceptance of new ideas about the universe and our place in it has never been linear and always contested even within the scientific community. And she affirms that, shifting and incomplete as science always must be, it offers the best path we have toward making sense of our wondrous, mysterious universe.

Order Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal The Cosmos from Amazon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 7
Dr. Benjamin Bergen — What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves (book cover) Benjamin Bergen (photo by Keegan Uhl)

Photo by Keegan Uhl

Dr. Benjamin Bergen is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, and in his new book he explains why profanity is so appealing to us. Let’s face it, we all swear. Whether we’re happy or mad, uttering a four-letter word seems to be a natural occurrence for most of us. But why do we swear, even when we know we’re breaking cultural taboos? Why are some words off limits in certain countries or deemed offensive in past centuries but are considered perfectly tame in others? What does all this g*ddamn swearing tell us about our language and our brains? Bergen has the answers as he illuminates the controversial and complex nature of profanity and its relationship on our culture.

Order What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves from Amazon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 6
Dr. Stephon Alexander — The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe

The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe (book cover) Stephon Alexander (photo by Lendel Marshal)

Photo by Lendel Marshal

In The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, physicist and jazz saxophonist Dr. Stephon Alexander revisits the ancient realm where music, physics, and the cosmos were one. This cosmological journey accompanies Alexander’s own tale of struggling to reconcile his passion for music and physics, from taking music lessons as a boy in the Bronx to studying theoretical physics at Imperial College. Playing the saxophone and improvising with equations, Alexander uncovered the connection between the fundamental waves that make up sound and the fundamental waves that make up everything else. As he reveals, the ancient poetic idea of the “music of the spheres,” taken seriously, clarifies confounding issues in physics. Dr. Alexander is the Royce Family Professor at Brown University’s Physics Department. In 2013, he won the prestigious American Physical Society Bouchet Award for “his contributions to theoretical cosmology.” He is also a jazz musician, and recently finished recording his first electronic jazz album with Erin Rioux.

Order The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe from Amazon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 5
Dr. Janna Levin — Gravitational Waves, Black Holes and the Nature of the Cosmos

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (book cover) Janna Levin (photo by Sonja Georgevich)

Photo by Sonja Georgevich

On Thursday, February 11, 2016, the National Science Foundation made a thrilling announcement: gravitational waves—first predicted by Einstein as part of his general theory of relativity in 1916—had been detected for the first time. This incredible development made front page news and was reported by outlets across the country. How was such a remarkable discovery, a long hundred years after Einstein’s prediction, made possible?

In this Science Salon based on her new book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, astrophysicist and award-winning writer Dr. Janna Levin tells the epic story of the scientific campaign to record these waves—the holy grail of modern cosmology. A handful of physicists, led by Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever at Caltech and Rainer Weiss at MIT, have been working nearly their entire careers to conceive of, design, and build an instrument sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves. Levin delves into the lives and fates of the scientists, painting compelling portraits of these very human visionaries. She journeys from Los Angeles to Boston, to the LIGO interferometers in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana, to the labs, offices, and observatories where the work in this great quest has painstakingly unfolded over the past five decades. Her account of the personalities, surprises, setbacks, and successes is a compelling and intimate portrait of the people and processes of modern science.

Order Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space from Amazon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 4
Dr. Sean B. Carroll — The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters

How does life work? How does nature produce the right numbers of zebras and lions on the African savanna, or fish in the ocean? How do our bodies produce the right numbers of cells in our organs and bloodstream? In The Serengeti Rules, award-winning biologist and author Sean Carroll tells the stories of the pioneering scientists who sought the answers to such simple yet profoundly important questions, and shows how their discoveries matter for our health and the health of the planet we depend upon.

One of the most important revelations about the natural world is that everything is regulated—there are rules that regulate the amount of every molecule in our bodies and rules that govern the numbers of every animal and plant in the wild. And the most surprising revelation about the rules that regulate life at such different scales is that they are remarkably similar—there is a common underlying logic of life. Carroll recounts how our deep knowledge of the rules and logic of the human body has spurred the advent of revolutionary life-saving medicines, and makes the compelling case that it is now time to use the Serengeti Rules to heal our ailing planet. Order The Serengeti Rules from Amazon.

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