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Distinguished Science Lecture Series Archives

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

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

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.

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

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.

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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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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Greece & Magna Graecia 2020

Join Pulitzer-prize-winning author JARED DIAMOND on a 13-day tour exploring the archeological and cultural riches of Athens, the Peloponnese, and Southern Italy October 3–15, 2020, presented by the Skeptics Society and Thalassa Journeys.

Learn more about this tour

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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE PDF Download

Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

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Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

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The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

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Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

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The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

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Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

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Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

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The Yeti or Abominable Snowman

5 Cryptid Cards

Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.

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