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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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An Appetite for Wonder—The Making of a Scientist
in Conversation with Michael Shermer

Richard Dawkins

RICHARD DAWKINS’ first book, The Selfish Gene, caused a seismic shift in the study of biology by proffering the gene-centered view of evolution. It was also in this book that Dawkins coined the term meme, a unit of cultural evolution, which has itself become a mainstay in contemporary culture. In An Appetite for Wonder, Richard Dawkins shares a rare view into his early life, his intellectual awakening at Oxford, and his path to writing The Selfish Gene. He paints a vivid picture of his idyllic childhood in colonial Africa, peppered with sketches of his colorful ancestors, charming parents, and the peculiarities of colonial life right after World War II. At boarding school, despite a near-religious encounter with an Elvis record, he began his career as a skeptic by refusing to kneel for prayer in chapel. Despite some inspired teaching throughout primary and secondary school, it was only when he got to Oxford that his intellectual curiosity took full flight, ultimately climaxing in the 2006 publication of The God Delusion, which made Dawkins a world famous public intellectual engaged in social activism.

The views expressed by the speaker are solely those of the speaker. The content of this presentation does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the California Institute of Technology and should not be taken as an endorsement.

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Odd Couples: Extraordinary Differences between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom

Daphne Fairbairn

WHILE WE JOKE that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, our gender differences can’t compare to those of other animals. For instance: the male garden spider spontaneously dies after mating with a female more than 50 times his size. Female cichlids must guard their eggs and larvae—even from the hungry appetites of their own partners. And male blanket octopuses employ a copulatory arm longer than their own bodies to mate with females that outweigh them by four orders of magnitude. Why do these gender gulfs exist? This lecture, based on her book, explores some of the most extraordinary sexual differences in the animal world. From the fields of Spain to the deep oceans, evolutionary biologist Daphne Fairbairn uncovers the unique and bizarre characteristics that exist in these remarkable species and the special strategies they use to maximize reproductive success. Fairbairn also considers humans and explains that although we are keenly aware of our own sexual differences, they are unexceptional within the vast animal world.

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Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success

Adam Grant (photo by Michael Kamber)

IN THIS LECTURE, based on his book on the psychology of human interactions, organizational psychologist Dr. Adam Grant (the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton Business School) argues that as much as hard work, talent and luck, the way we choose to interact with other people defines our success or failure. Give and Take demolishes the “me-first” worldview and shows that the best way to get to the top is to focus not on your solo journey but on bringing others with you. Grant reveals how one of America’s best networkers developed his connections, why a creative genius behind one of the most popular shows in television history toiled for years in anonymity, how a basketball executive responsible for multiple draft busts turned things around, and how we could have anticipated Enron’s demise four years before the company collapsed—without ever looking at a single number.

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To Boldly Go…Well, You Know:
NASA’s Dawn Mission to the Asteroid Belt

Marc Rayman

The ambitious Dawn mission, launched in September 2007, is one of NASA’s most remarkable ventures into the solar system. The spacecraft has recently completed a spectacular exploration of Vesta and is now traveling to Ceres; these were among the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system prior to Dawn. They are the two most massive residents of the main asteroid belt. Ceres is so large that it is included in the category of dwarf planets, along with Pluto. Remnants from the time that planets were formed, Ceres and Vesta hold clues that will help scientists understand the dawn of the solar system. Dawn orbited Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012 and returned astonishing views of this fascinating world. It is the only spacecraft ever to orbit an object in the asteroid belt. Such a mission would be impossible without the use of ion propulsion, a technology that has mostly been in the domain of science fiction, but which was tested extensively on the Deep Space 1 mission, paving the way for Dawn. Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s Chief Engineer and Mission Director at JPL, will describe the Dawn mission and its use of ion propulsion as well as its two exotic destinations. He will also share the excitement and profundity of controlling a spacecraft in deep space.

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Louder Than Words: The New Science
of How the Mind Makes Meaning

Benjamin Bergen (photo by Keegan Uhl)

In this Lecture, based on his book, U.C. San Diego cognitive psychologist Benjamin K. Bergen draws together research in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience to offer a new theory of how our minds make meaning. When we hear words and sentences, we engage the parts of our brain that we use for perception and action—repurposing evolutionarily older networks—to create mental simulations. Embodied simulation, as it’s called, is the reason why it takes time to travel over distance, even in our mind’s eye; why it’s possible for us to become better baseball players by imagining a well-executed swing; and why it’s so hard to talk on cell phones while we’re driving on the highway. Rather than merely calling up abstract ideas to understand language, as others previously argued, our brains engage in a creative act to construct rich mental worlds in which we see, hear, and feel.

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The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

Dr. W. Patrick McCray (photo by Brian W Robb)

In 1969, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill began looking outward to space colonies as the new frontier for humanity’s expansion. A decade later, Eric Drexler, an MIT-trained engineer, turned his attention to the molecular world as the place where society’s future needs could be met using self-replicating nanoscale machines. These modern utopians predicted that their technologies could transform society as humans mastered the ability to create new worlds, undertook atomic-scale engineering, and, if truly successful, overcame their own biological limits. In this lecture, based on the book by the same name, Patrick McCray traces how these visioneers blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future. But the visioneers were not immune to failure—or to the lures of profit, celebrity, and hype. O’Neill and Drexler faced difficulty funding their work and overcoming colleagues’ skepticism, and saw their ideas co-opted and transformed by Timothy Leary, the scriptwriters of Star Trek, and many others. Ultimately, both men struggled to overcome stigma and ostracism as they tried to unshackle their visioneering from pejorative labels like “fringe” and “pseudoscience.” The Visioneers provides a balanced look at the successes and pitfalls they encountered, the dangers that can plague exploratory science, and the importance of radical new ideas that inspire us to support cutting-edge research into tomorrow’s technologies.

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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Dr. Jared Diamond

The mega-bestselling author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, Dr. Jared Diamond surveys the differences between “traditional” societies and industrial or post-industrial societies, with an eye to the question: what can we learn from the former that can make the world we live in a better place for all of us? Today, citizens of industrial states take for granted metal, writing, airplanes, police and government, overweight people, meeting strangers without fear, heterogeneous populations, and so on. But all those features of modern human societies are relatively new in human history. For most of our past, human societies had none of these things. Today’s traditional societies are in many respects a window onto the human world as it was until a mere yesterday, measured against a time scale of the 6,000,000 years of human evolution. Those societies show us pieces of how all of our ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years. Traditional lifestyles are what shaped us and caused us to be what we are today; all human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern. Thus, traditional represent thousands of natural experiments in how to construct a human society. They have come up with thousands of solutions to human problems, solutions different from those adopted by our own modern societies. Diamond gives us a first-hand picture of the human past as it has been for millions of years and considers what the differences between that past world and our present one mean for our collective future.

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The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity

Dr. Paul Zak

A revolution in the scientific study of good and evil, Dr. Paul Zak’s lecture, based on his book, The Moral Molecule, answers such questions as: Why do some people give freely while others are cold hearted? Why do some people cheat and steal while others you can trust with your life? Why are some husbands more faithful than others—and why do women tend to be more generous than men? Could the key to moral behavior lie with a single molecule? From the bucolic English countryside to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, from labs in Switzerland to his campus in Southern California, Dr. Zak recounts his extraordinary stories and sets out, for the first time, his revolutionary theory of moral behavior.

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Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us

Dr. Donald Yeomans

Of all the natural disasters that could befall us, only an Earth impact by a large comet or asteroid has the potential to end civilization in a single blow. Yet these near-Earth objects also offer tantalizing clues to our solar system’s origin, and someday could even serve as stepping-stones for space exploration. In this lecture, Donald Yeomans introduces readers to the science of near-Earth objects—its history, applications, and ongoing quest to find near-Earth objects before they find us. Yeomans takes readers behind the scenes of today’s efforts to find, track, and study near-Earth objects. He shows how the same comets and asteroids most likely to collide with us could also be mined for precious natural resources like water and oxygen, and used as watering holes and fueling stations for expeditions to Mars and the outermost reaches of our solar system.

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The Particle at the End of the Universe:
How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us
to the Edge of a New World

Dr. Sean M. Carroll

Scientists have just announced an historic discovery on a par with the splitting of the atom: the Higgs boson. The key to understanding why mass exists has been found. In The Particle at the End of the Universe, Caltech physicist and acclaimed writer Sean Carroll takes you behind the scenes of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to meet the scientists and explain this landmark event. What is so special about the Higgs boson? We didn’t really know for sure if anything at the subatomic level had any mass at all until we found it. The fact is, while we have now essentially solved the mass puzzle, there are things we didn’t predict and possibilities we haven’t yet dreamed. A doorway is opening into the mind boggling, somewhat frightening world of dark matter. We only discovered the electron just over a hundred years ago and considering where that took us—from nuclear energy to quantum computing—the inventions that will result from the Higgs discovery will be world-changing.

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