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Past Lectures

Big names. Even Bigger Ideas. The Skeptics Society's Dinstinguished Lecture Series. hosted by Michael Shermer. Nnow on Vimeo On Demand.
Big names. Even Bigger Ideas.
Science lectures, online,
on Vimeo On Demand

Most of our past lectures are available for purchase on DVD, and many of our most popular lectures can now be rented for a small fee and watched online, on demand, around the world, on Vimeo On Demand.

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Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science & the Search for Meaning

Dr. Marcelo Gleiser (photo b Gil Inoue)

DO ALL QUESTIONS HAVE ANSWERS? How much can we know about the world? Is there such a thing as an ultimate truth? To be human is to want to know, but what we are able to observe is only a tiny portion of what’s “out there.” In The Island of Knowledge, Dartmouth College astronomer and physicist Dr. Marcelo Gleiser traces our search for answers to the most fundamental questions of existence. In so doing, he reaches a provocative conclusion: science, the main tool we use to find answers, is fundamentally limited. These limits to our knowledge arise both from our tools of exploration and from the nature of physical reality: the speed of light, the uncertainty principle, the impossibility of seeing beyond the cosmic horizon, the incompleteness theorem, and our own limitations as an intelligent species. Recognizing limits in this way, Gleiser argues, is not a deterrent to progress or a surrendering to religion. Rather, it frees us to question the meaning and nature of the universe while affirming the central role of life and ourselves in it. Science can and must go on, but recognizing its limits reveals its true mission: to know the universe is to know ourselves. Order The Island of Knowledge from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

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The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide
to Writing in the 21st Century

Dr. Steven Pinker (photo by Rebecca Goldstein)

WHY IS SO MUCH WRITING SO BAD, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do people write badly on purpose, to obfuscate and impress? Have dictionaries abandoned their responsibility to safeguard correct usage? Do kids today even care about good writing? In his latest book the Harvard linguist, cognitive scientist, bestselling author (The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature) and chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, Dr. Steven Pinker, answers these questions and more. Pinker applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose. Filled with examples of great and gruesome modern prose, The Sense of Style shows how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right, that is also informed by science. Order The Sense of Style from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

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The Myth of Mirror Neurons

Dr. Gregory Hickok

IN THIS MYTH-BUSTING TALK based on his new book, U.C. Irvine cognitive scientist Dr. Gregory Hickok calls for an essential reconsideration of one of the most far-reaching theories in modern neuroscience and psychology. Ever since the discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys in 1992 there has been a stream of scientific studies implicating mirror neurons in everything from schizophrenia and drug abuse to sexual orientation and contagious yawning. Drawing on a broad range of observations from work on animal behavior, modern neuroimaging, neurological disorders, and more, Dr. Hickok argues that the foundational assumptions fall flat in light of the facts. He then explores alternative explanations of mirror neuron function while illuminating crucial questions about human cognition and brain function: Why do humans imitate so prodigiously? How different are the left and right hemispheres of the brain? Why do we have two visual systems? Do we need to be able to talk to understand speech? What’s going wrong in autism? Dr. Hickok provides deep insights into the organization and function of the human brain and the nature of communication and cognition. Order The Myth of Mirror Neurons from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

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Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter

Dr. Katherine-Freese.jpg

THE ORDINARY ATOMS that make up the known universe constitute only 5% of all matter and energy in the cosmos. The rest is known as dark matter and dark energy, because their precise identities are unknown. The Cosmic Cocktail is the inside story of the epic quest to solve one of the most compelling enigmas of modern science—what is the universe made of?—told by one of today’s foremost pioneers in the study of dark matter, acclaimed University of Michigan theoretical physicist Katherine Freese. Theorists contend that dark matter consists of fundamental particles known as WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles. Billions of them pass through our bodies every second without us even realizing it, yet their gravitational pull is capable of whirling stars and gas at breakneck speeds around the centers of galaxies, and bending light from distant bright objects. Dr. Freese describes the larger-than-life characters and clashing personalities behind the race to identify these elusive particles. Order The Cosmic Cocktail from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

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Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away

Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

STEPHEN HAWKING SAID PHILOSOPHY IS DEAD. Plato would disagree, says the acclaimed philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein, who provides a dazzlingly original plunge into the drama of philosophy, revealing its hidden role in today’s debates on religion, morality, politics, and science. Philosophy is not obsolete, and the ancient questions that Plato asked are still relevant in the age of cosmology and neuroscience, crowd-sourcing and cable news. Imagine that Plato came to life in the 21st century and embarked on a multicity speaking tour. How would he handle the host of a cable news program who denies there can be morality without religion? How would he mediate a debate between a Freudian psychoanalyst and a tiger mom on how to raise the perfect child? How would he answer a neuroscientist who, about to scan Plato’s brain, argues that science has definitively answered the questions of free will and moral agency? What would Plato make of Google, and of the idea that knowledge can be crowd-sourced rather than reasoned out by experts? With a philosopher’s depth and a novelist’s imagination and wit, Goldstein probes the deepest issues confronting us by allowing us to eavesdrop on Plato as he takes on the modern world. Order Plato at the Googleplex from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

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Humble Before The Void:
Western Science Meets Tibetan Buddhism

Chris Impey

SURPRISE, DELIGHT, AND UNBRIDLED MIRTH are not commonly encountered in the science classroom. But in the foothills of the Himalaya, at a program to teach cosmology to Buddhist monks by the University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey, they were daily occurrences. Working with this unique audience spurred new ways of thinking about the universe and the art of teaching. This talk takes listeners on an adventure at the nexus of science, religion, philosophy, and culture. Dr. Impey studies quasars and distant galaxies and is the author of How it Began, How it Ends, and The Living Cosmos, and has won 11 teaching awards. Order Humble Before The Void from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

Particle Fever (film poster)

Followed by: a screening of
the documentary film
Particle Fever

“Mind Blowing”

The New York Times

Particle Fever follows the inside story of six brilliant scientists seeking to unravel the mysteries of the universe, documenting the successes and setbacks in the planet’s most significant and inspiring scientific breakthrough. Read more about the film.

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Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity

Edward Slingerland (photo by Paul Joseph)

WHY IS IT ALWAYS HARD to fall asleep the night before an important meeting? Or be charming and relaxed on a first date? What is it about a politician who seems wooden or a comedian whose jokes fall flat or an athlete who chokes? In all of these cases, striving seems to backfire. In Trying Not To Try, Edward Slingerland explains why we find spontaneity so elusive, and shows how early Chinese thought points the way to happier, more authentic lives. We’ve long been told that the way to achieve our goals is through careful reasoning and conscious effort. But recent research suggests that many aspects of a satisfying life, like happiness and spontaneity, are best pursued indirectly. Through stories of mythical creatures and drunken cart riders, jazz musicians and Japanese motorcycle gangs, Slingerland effortlessly blends Eastern thought and cutting-edge science to show us how we can live more fulfilling lives. Order Trying Not to Try from Amazon.

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The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History
of Social Mobility

Gregory Clark

HOW MUCH OF OUR FATE is tied to the status of our parents and grandparents? How much does this influence our children? More than we wish to believe. While it has been argued that rigid class structures have eroded in favor of greater social equality, The Son Also Rises proves that movement on the social ladder has changed little over eight centuries. Using a novel technique—tracking family names over generations to measure social mobility across countries and periods—renowned economic historian Gregory Clark reveals that mobility rates are lower than conventionally estimated, do not vary across societies, and are resistant to social policies. The good news is that these patterns are driven by strong inheritance of abilities and lineage does not beget unwarranted advantage. The bad news is that much of our fate is predictable from lineage. Clark argues that since a greater part of our place in the world is predetermined, we must avoid creating winner-take-all societies.

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Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

Svante Paabo (photo by Frank Vinken)

SVANTE PÄÄBO IS THE FOUNDER of the field of ancient DNA and is the director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. In Neanderthal Man he tells the story of his mission to answer the question of what we can learn from the genes of our closest evolutionary relative, culminating in his sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2009. We learn that Neanderthal genes offer a unique window into the lives of our hominin relatives and may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of why humans survived while Neanderthals went extinct. Drawing on genetic and fossil clues, Pääbo explores what is known about the origin of modern humans and their relationship to the Neanderthals and describes the fierce debate surrounding the nature of the two species’ interactions.

Order Neanderthal Man from Amazon.

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Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math
in Fantasy and Science Fiction

Charles Alder

FROM TELEPORTATION AND SPACE ELEVATORS to alien contact and interstellar travel, science fiction and fantasy writers have come up with some brilliant and innovative ideas. Yet how plausible are these ideas? Which concepts might actually happen, and which ones wouldn’t work at all? A professor of physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Adler delves into the most extraordinary details in science fiction and fantasy—time warps, shape changing, rocket launches, and illumination by floating candle—and shows readers the physics and math behind the phenomena. From the works of Ursula K. Le Guin to Star Trek and Avatar, Adler considers what might become reality. He examines space travel and wonders why it isn’t cheaper and more common today, and discusses exoplanets and how the search for alien life has shifted from radio communications to space-based telescopes. He concludes by investigating the future survival of humanity and other intelligent races.

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A book signing will follow the lecture.

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