Monday, April 11, 2005

Saturday Morning Physics

In late 2002 I began a new public lecture series in Syracuse, called Saturday Morning Physics, which is designed to share the ideas and excitement of cutting edge modern physics with people with no previous science education. I was motivated to do this after a visit to the University of Michigan, during which I attended one of their lectures of this type and was stunned with how popular it was.

The Syracuse incarnation is now a regular event, with a growing audience drawn from local high schools and the public in general. I spent Saturday morning running the tenth lecture in our series. The previous nine
  • Searching for Ripples in Space-time: Fulfilling Einstein's Vision
  • Modern Cosmology and the Building Blocks of the Universe
  • The Case of the Missing Antimatter
  • Black Holes: the One Hour Tour
  • `Catch a Falling Photon, Put it in Your Pocket.': The Science of Solar Energy
  • Chaos: Snowfall, Dirty Dishes, and the Paths of Planets
  • Astrochemistry and Astrobiology: Exploring the Chemical Factories of Interstellar Space
  • Soft Matter: Geometry and Materials
  • Physics and Society: from individual Enabling Technologies to Global Crisis Communications
have been quite successful, drawing audiences of between 80 and 150.

Saturday's talk was something a little different, as it was also part of our World Year of Physics celebration. My colleague Peter Saulson, who is the spokesperson of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and is a wonderful speaker, gave a masterful lecture titled "A Celebration of Einstein's `Miracle Year'". Peter described Einstein's 1905 papers on Brownian motion, on the photoelectric effect and on special relativity, explaining the essential physics, the revolutionary nature of the papers and the lasting impact that these insights have had on physics and technology. If you would like to read an eloquent description of the science and its implications, take a look at Brian Greene's editorial, One Hundred Years of Uncertainty, in Friday's New York Times.

Peter ended the lecture in a novel way by reporting to the audience about how individual Syracuse Physics professors felt that the three 1905 papers influence their research today. He had surveyed most of the faculty and the responses were quite interesting, pointing out the connections to cosmology, condensed matter physics, particle physics and solar energy research.

I was delighted that one of my colleagues chose to comment on Einstein as a model for the public and political roles that she felt scientists should play. Some of the battles to be fought today are the same as those that faced Einstein's generation, but there are some new ones for which we need to organize. An important example in the U.S. right now is the need for scientists to speak out when faith and belief are replacing skepticism and reason as the basis for government policy. Pharyngula has posted the text of Donald Kennedy's wonderful editorial about these issues in the most recent issue of Science. It's quite well written and, although the need for such an editorial deeply depresses me, it is a relief to see an increasing number of high profile scientists, educators and journalists taking on this cause.
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