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Past Lectures

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.

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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.

Order Wizards, Aliens, and Starships from Amazon.

A book signing will follow the lecture.

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Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self

Jennifer Ouellette (photo by Ken Weingart)

POPULAR SCIENCE WRITER Jennifer Ouellette has tackled math in The Calculus Diaries and physics in both The Physics of the Buffyverse and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats.

In Me, Myself and Why she turns her attention to the science of the self and delivers a fascinating survey of the forces that shape who we are and why we act the way we do. Ouellette acts as both journalist and subject, as she takes a battery of personality tests, has her genes sequenced and an MRI brain scan done, and even goes on her first and only LSD trip, all the while taking the reader along for the ride. As an adoptee, with basic information about her biological parents, Ouellette considers what traits she undeniably has inherited through genetics and what traits she has in common with her siblings (also adoptees) and her parents, which leads to a fascinating discussion on synapses and how the brain is wired and continues to change as we grow older.

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How To Boldly Go Into Space: An Insider’s Look into How Space Missions are Created, Funded, Built, Launched, and Run

Drs. Linda and Thomas Spilker

DRAWING ON THEIR DECADES OF WORK FOR NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Drs. Linda and Thomas Spilker give us an inside view of what goes into the unmanned space program, from the origin of a space mission, to how the funds are found to finance it, to how the spacecraft is designed and built, and to the launching and running of such a mission, often designed to last for years and even decades. How do you get a spacecraft to Saturn, anyway? Who decides what it should study when it gets there? What happens when something goes wrong? And, as a society, why do we explore the solar system (and beyond) and what do we learn from it? Don’t miss this revealing account of what rocket scientists do.

Dr. Linda Spilker has been a NASA research scientist at JPL for almost 37 years. Since joining JPL in 1977 she has worked on the Voyager project during the flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. She is currently the Cassini Project Scientist and a Co-Investigator on the Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer team. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA in geophysics and space physics.

Dr. Thomas R. Spilker retired last year after 20 years at JPL, and now consults in both the science and engineering aspects of scientific space flight missions. He worked on the Voyager, Cassini, Stardust, and Genesis missions, and currently is a science team co-investigator on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to a comet. He also worked in “Mission Formulation,” or designing new science mission concepts. His Stanford Ph.D. involved radio measurements of planetary atmospheres.

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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Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids & Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future

Donald Prothero

GEOLOGIST, PALEONTOLOGIST, EVOLUTIONARY THEORIST AND SOCIAL ACTIVIST in the name of science and skepticism, Dr. Donald Prothero talks about his two new books that deal with battles over evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations, and the causes of AIDS, alternative medicine, oil shortages, population growth, and the place of science in our country. Many people and institutions have exerted enormous efforts to misrepresent or flatly deny demonstrable scientific reality to protect their nonscientific ideology, their power, or their bottom line. To shed light on this darkness, Prothero explains the scientific process and why society has come to rely on science not only to provide a better life but also to reach verifiable truths no other method can obtain.

And on the lighter side, Prothero talks about how large numbers of people believe in demonstrably false phenomena, from UFOs and ESP to Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Even though these fictions have been repeatedly debunked and discredited, they persist in the human imagination and influence our beliefs and our society. Prothero gives an entertaining and educational overview of a variety of cryptids, presenting both the arguments for and against their existence and systematically challenging the pseudoscience perpetuating their myths.

A book signing will follow the lecture.

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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