Wonderfest has awarded the 2017 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization to Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna, Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular & Cell Biology at UC Berkeley. The Sagan Prize, funded by Aduro Biotech, is presented specifically to recognize and encourage Bay Area researchers who "have contributed mightily to the public understanding and appreciation of science."
Dr. Doudna is globally known for her discovery and development of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system which the New York Times says has "revolutionized humans' ability to edit DNA," allowing genetic changes that can be passed on to future generations. Dr. Doudna's numerous and rich science popularization efforts include a TED talk, RadioLab & Science Friday interviews, and a best-selling popular book on gene editing and its implications.
Dr. Doudna will receive the Sagan Prize — including its $5000 cash award — from Wonderfest founding Board member Dr. Eugenie Scott during a ceremony in Berkeley on January 17, 2018. Dr. Jennifer Doudna
WHAT: Jennifer Doudna Receives 2017 Sagan Prize
WHO: Dr. Jennifer Doudna, Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular & Cell Biology, UC Berkeley
WHERE: To Be Announced, Berkeley, California
WHEN: 2018-01-17 — 7:00pm, Wednesday, January 17, 2018
HOW: By invitation only. Please email Wonderfest director Tucker Hiatt <email@example.com> by 1/14/18 to request an invitation.
Humans are living longer but are not necessarily healthier. The latest research on human health and longevity has identified factors that control the aging process. By increasing our understanding of the biology of aging, we are beginning to identify interventions that will significantly extend the years of health, happiness, and productivity. Dr. Gregory Tranah
WHAT: Healthy Aging
WHO: Dr. Gregory Tranah, Senior Scientist (CPMC Research Institute) & Adjunct Professor (UCSF Epidemiology & Biostatistics Dept.)
Wonderfest joins the Commonwealth Club Silicon Valley in presenting Richard Dawkins in discussion of his second memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark.
Richard Dawkins is a British evolutionary biologist, ethologist, science writer, and outspoken atheist. In 1976, he published his first book, The Selfish Gene, which emphasized the gene as the key unit of biological evolution, and coined the term meme as the unit of cultural evolution. In 2013, Dawkin’s Appetite for Wonder chronicled “the making of a scientist” up to the appearance of The Selfish Gene. Now, with Brief Candle in the Dark:My Life in Science, Dawkins discusses his later life as “Darwin’s Rottweiler” and as a leader of the New Atheism movement.
WHAT/WHO: Richard Dawkins — My Life in Science
WHEN: Saturday, October 3 — 1:15pm check-in, 2:00pm program, 3pm book signing
WHERE: Morris Dailey Auditorium, San Jose State University, One Washington Square, San Jose
HOW: Follow these steps to secure a $10 discount on either NONMEMBER ticket price, “General Admission” or “Premium”:
We have three terrific speaker/topic combos coming your way in the next two weeks.
On Wednesday, September 30, at 7pm, Wonderfest joins SF in SF at the Balboa Theater in presenting a special screening of the 1997 sci-fi thriller GATTACA. Complete info and ticket purchase are available here: <http://wonderfest.org/gattaca/>.
What makes this screening so “special” is commentary and Q&A with bioethics expert Hank Greely. Dr. Greely is TWICE a Stanford professor: of law and of genetics. He also directs Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences. Dr. Greely first shared insights with a Wonderfest audience at our 2012 panel discussion entitled Does Corporate Funding Corrupt Science? Much more recently, he was the go-to expert on KCBS radio after the California State legislature voted to allow assisted suicide. You will not find a better speaker on genetics and society than Professor Greely.
Thanks to the Commonwealth Club Silicon Valley… On Saturday, October 3, at 2pm, Wonderfest assists in presenting Richard Dawkins at San Jose State’s Morris Dailey Auditorium. Full info and discount ticket purchase are available here: <http://wonderfest.org/richard-dawkins/>.
The celebrated and controversial British evolutionary biologist, writer, and atheist will speak about his latest book, A Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science, the second of two memoirs describing his intriguing life. Books will be available for purchase and for signing.
On Monday, October 5, at 7pm, Wonderfest presents Stanford physicist Tom Abel on the “First Things in the Universe” at PianoFight in San Francisco. Complete information and registration info are available here: <http://wonderfest.org/first-things/>.
Professor Abel is the director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford. His speciality is computer simulation of the early universe. The full title of this Wonderfest talk is “How the First Things in the Universe Came About and How They Ended Up Within Us.” Expect to see cutting-edge computer animations that are as beautiful as they are mind-stretching.
Tucker Hiatt Founding Executive Director
P.S. Most-excellent Wonderfest friend Andrew Fraknoi invites us to experience a total eclipse of the Moon in the early evening of Sunday, September 27. “It should be easily visible and quite spectacular from California, with the moon rising already partly eclipsed,” writes Andy. Here is his outstanding blog: <http://fraknoi.blogspot.com>.
P.P.S. Here’s an early glimpse of a Wonderfest Halloween event to be featured in our next newsletter: The Official Houdini Séance – 2015. Even though this link presents a Kickstarter campaign that is almost “funded,” it will still allow the purchase of tickets to the Séance — and you can still support the science-education benefits of “super funding.” Please do take a look at this upcoming spectacle of science, history, skepticism, and magic.
On Monday, inventor Elon Musk challenged California’s high-speed rail plans with his Hyperloop. On the very same day, Wonderfest challenged Mr. Musk to think more “deeply” (*ahem*) about truly futuristic, low-cost, high-speed transport. The Radical Physics chord tunnel would take us from San Francisco to LA in 42 minutes at virtually no energy cost!
Who will be the next Carl Sagan? Could s/he be in development at, say, a Bay Area university, right now? More generally: How can we inspire great researchers — as psychologist Alison Gopnik and astronomer Geoff Marcy have been inspired — to dedicate a significant portion of their energies to public science understanding?
To address these vital questions, Gopnik and Marcy (and six other local professors noted for their expertise in science communication) have nominated eight gifted Bay Area PhD students to become WonderfestScience Envoys.
Wonderfest’s Science Envoy Pilot Project (SEPP) will provide a series of workshops and speaking opportunities to these most-promising, hand-picked, energetic, young researchers. The very title of their SEPP textbook declares the point of the project: Scientists Must Speak.
Through SEPP, Wonderfest will simultaneously present youthful science insights to the Bay Area and inspire the next generation of well-spoken public-spirited researchers to follow in Sagan’s footsteps. Keep your eyes peeled for further news about SEPP, and please check this newsletter’s post script for a remarkable opportunity to triple your donation to the cause.
Speaking of generous science experts who share knowledge with the public… San Jose State physicist Ken Wharton will expand upon the insights of his June Cinema Science presentation with Physics vs. Time Travel, on August 20, at NASA-Ames in Mountain View.
Prof. Wharton’s presentation will use popular movies to explore both the logical and physical challenges to this most favored of science fiction themes. (For a short review of Einstein’s insights into forward time travel, try this.) Physics vs. Time Travel is a free presentation that marks Wonderfest’s first collaboration with the prestigious Commonwealth Club.
Founding Executive Director
P.S. Would you like to help inspire Saganesque dedication to public enlightenment among young researchers? Why not donate to Wonderfest’s Science Envoy Pilot Project?! For the next few weeks, every dollar donated to the project will be matched by TWO dollars from an anonymous Wonderfest benefactor! This fantastic 2-for-1 offer expires on September 30 or when we’ve raised $5,000, so pleasemake a contribution soon.
Is this the first or second Wonderfest newsletter that you have received in … ages?
I have learned that many — maybe even most — of the 2000+ email addresses on the Wonderfest mail list have not been receiving these letters. Two-years-worth of monthly newsletters may have gone largely undelivered!
I’d be surprised if this news breaks any hearts. 😉 But it does quite a cardio stomp on mine. That’s because these newsletters have described some truly wonderful ideas and events. For the record, here is our online newsletter archive.
The Wonderfest Board of Directors and I would like to learn from our newly rediscovered friends — and from our old ones. So, in an effort to improve not only Wonderfest’s programs but also its funding, we want to hear from you our dear supporters.
Will you kindly take a moment — 5 minutes at most! — to respond to this crucial Improving Wonderfest survey? Your feedback will be invaluable in re-shaping Wonderfest and in generating new ideas for funding our critical programs.
In 1999’s The Matrix, heroic Neo must choose between a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill will awaken Neo to the real world; the blue pill will keep him in a computer-fabricated pseudo-reality, the eponymous Matrix.
The blue pill presents an intriguing challenge that reminds us of Rene Descartes’ 17th-century “evil genius.” This great creation of philosophy could, right now, be deceiving us about the nature of reality. Perhaps this electronic newsletter, the chilly winter air, and all the stars above are impenetrable illusions created by the evil genius.
Such thoughts animate late-night dormitory discussions, but they don’t have popular staying power. Most of us eventually shrug-off questions about reality, artificial or not, as Woody Allen did: “I hate reality, but it’s still the best place to get a good steak.”
David Hume, in the 18th century, did not shrug Descartes off. In a sense, Hume one-upped Descartes by leaving us with a skeptical insight that can’t be shaken off. It lies, today, at the heart of science, and it can fill us with a continuous sense of wonder.
This month’s Wonderfest presentation is co-produced with the Bay Area Skeptics. Its title is Overconfidence and the Frailty of Knowledge, and it addresses skepticism about what we know — both at the personal level and at the universal level. We will examine ourselves for signs of overconfidence, and we’ll probe deep into the heart of science to discover unavoidable Humian frailty.
The two speakers are psychologist Dr. Marilin Colon of Cal State East Bay and a certain Tucker Hiatt of Wonderfest. The time is Wednesday, Jan. 16, at 7:30pm; and the place is Berkeley’s La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue. The subject is more than the red or blue bill. It is key issues in how well we really know most any matter of fact. I hope you can come.
P.S. Please join Wonderfest on Facebook, and sharethis information with your friends. We also have a Meetup group with almost 300 members. Come take part!
Wonderfest is going strong. But with your help, there’s so much more that we can do! Please help Wonderfest continue its outstanding work for science education and popularization by attending End of Daze, our low-cost gala fun(d)raiser this Saturday evening in San Francisco.
Planetary scientist Chris McKay will be there (in person). And so will doomed friends Kiera & Steve (on the silver screen) in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. There’ll be free popcorn and a no-host bar for drinks and candy.
Tickets for End of Daze are still available. It’s not too late to have a blast(!) with your best science friend: Wonderfest!
– Tucker Hiatt, Executive Director
* compared with Wonderfest’s pre-“Beacon” days, when it was the Bay Area Festival of Science
Wonderfest is a nonprofit organization. Our goals are lofty, our budget is streamlined, and our services are free.
Yet Wonderfest has held only a single fundraiser in its 15-year history! For late September of 2001, we planned a small science-rich dinner to open the hearts and wallets of a select group of supporters. Unfortunately, the events of September 11, 2001, undermined our fondest hopes.
People were fearful back then; and fear does not inspire munificence. That first Wonderfest fundraiser actually cost more money to produce than it earned in donations!
Now, as 2012 draws to a close, Wonderfest presents TWO new fundraisers, each quite distinct from the other. We dearly hope that at least one of these pleasing efforts will take hold of you!
Consider Wonderfest’s fundraiser take-2: the “What is Energy?” Kickstarter campaign. As the online introduction proclaims, “Energy may be the single most important idea in science.” Ten expert online videos will explain the science of this mysterious essence “from quantum to cosmos, from evolution to economics.”
We need $12,000 to produce the “What Is Energy?” video series, and we have already reached (nearly) $10,000 in pledges. But the last two thousand dollars are elusive; and, ironically, they are the most important dollars! That’s because Kickstarter dissolves all obligations between donors and donees whenever funding goals are not FULLY met. If our “What Is Energy?” campaign does not earn $12,000 in pledges by Monday, Nov. 12, then all pledges vaporize!
Please visit our Kickstarter page, and pledge a few dollars. We have fine rewards at every pledge level — from Wonderfest all-cotton shirts to a cosmic dinner in North Beach with legendary astrophysicist Alex Filippenko.
Bear in mind that these next $2,000 in pledges will secure the earlier $10,000. So, in effect, every dollar pledged now brings FIVE MORE DOLLARS along with it. This is a kind of “matching grant” like no other! Please do take a look at the inspiring video that will fund our rich and multifaceted answer to “What Is Energy?”
Wonderfest’s fundraiser “take-3” happens on December 1st, just one month before the end of the mythic year of our global demise: 2012. We are told that obscure Christian and Mayan chronologies foretell the “End of Days” in 2012. Consequently, Wonderfest presents End of Daze: Does Hollywood Get Doomsday Right?
The evening will begin with the astronomical insight and wit of planetary scientist Dr. Chris McKay. Then we will watch Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in 2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Doomsday has never inspired such a delightful story, or such a fun evening.
The venue for the “End of Daze” fundraiser is a luxurious, little-known, 49-seat theater in downtown San Francisco. This absolute limit on seating means that tickets must be purchased in advance. Please follow the link here, get one of those 49 tickets before they’re gone, and prepare yourself for a memorable evening of science, humor, romance, and — with regard to doomsday — daze abatement.
For twelve years, Wonderfest produced the annual Bay Area Festival of Science. Then, in 2011, Wonderfest became the Bay Area BEACON of Science, producing science events year-round. Also in 2011, UCSF’s Science & Health Education Partnership began to produce the Bay Area Science Festival (BASF), thus preserving the annual science festival idea.
BASF 2012 kicks off in two weeks. It runs for ten days, Oct.26 – Nov.4, and Wonderfest is a BIG part of the Festival. Of the 23 formal BASF Partner organizations, Wonderfest is the youngest, the smallest, and (arguably) the most BASF-involved: we are producing four activities! Each of these is intriguing, and, unlike many BASF events, each is FREE:
1) Does a Scientific Approach to Cooking Kill the Joy? is a classic Wonderfest dialogue between author Harold McGee (On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen) and professor Richard Zare (Stanford Chemistry Department). It takes place at 7:30 PM on Saturday, October 27, at Stanford’s Braun Auditorium (in the Mudd chemistry building). Braun seats nearly 300, but NOVA ScienceNOW is co-promoting this event with its upcoming Can I Eat That? premier, so expect a crowd. Why not guarantee a seat by arriving a little early and snacking on complimentary cheese and grapes?
2) Wonderfest – Physics Circus takes place at the biggest BASF venue. This so-called Discovery Days event happens at AT&T Park on Saturday, November 3. Celebrated physics wizard Zeke Kossover and I will offer demonstrations and hands-on activities from 11 AM to 4 PM using homemade equipment and the finest of physics gizmos from PASCO Scientific.
3) When World’s Collide, also on November 3 (the event, not the collision!), is jointly presented by Wonderfest and the Mt. Tamalpais Astronomy Program. It starts with a lecture under the stars in Mt. Tam’s Mountain Theater by NASA planetologist Kevin Zahnle, and will conclude with naked-eye stargazing and complimentary deep-sky observing through the big telescopes of the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers.
4) ICE, an Incredible Community Experiment is the most original Wonderfest contribution to BASF 2012, and it runs all festival long. ICE is a do-it-yourself, community-wide experiment that tests the seemingly absurd claim (made by Aristotle, among others) that hot water freezes faster than cold water. This simple, eye-opening, Bay-Area-wide experiment may end up being the BASF event that best promotes the understanding and appreciation of science. Please do try the experiment yourself, and then submit your results for comparison with thousands of others at BASF.
The Bay Area Science Festival is a fantastic display of local science popularization efforts. Please check out the full Festival schedule, and mark you calendar accordingly. I hope I see you at some of Wonderfest’s intriguing BASF events.
Tucker Hiatt, Executive Director
P.S. To get more involved in Wonderfest activities, please consider becoming an Ambassador of Wonder. This volunteer position comes with a fancy badge, a Wonderfest polo shirt, and a host of interesting opportunities. The first such opportunity takes place on Nov. 3 at AT&T Park during our Wonderfest – Physics Circus. We need volunteers to represent Wonderfest by greeting the public, helping with physics demonstrations, and selling Wonderfest goodies. To become an Ambassador, please just drop me a message.
The 1918-1920 global influenza pandemic killed between 50 and 130 million people. Most victims were previously healthy adults located everywhere — from the arctic to remote pacific islands. In all, about one-quarter of humankind was infected.
Three weeks from this evening, on Sunday, September 23, Wonderfest explores a fascinating and frightening question: “Is Nature or Man the Most Effective Bioterrorist?” I hope you will come to be intrigued and enlightened.
This trademark Wonderfest dialogue features nature and humanity, but it will star Stanford professors Stanley Falkow and David Relman.
I say “star” because Falkow and Relman are legendary researcher-teachers. When Wonderfest advisor Dr. Bob Siegel — an infectious disease expert himself — learned that they would be presenting, Siegel was delighted: “Both Falkow and Relman are wonderful, … this will be a very memorable event.”
You will find a full description of the dialogue here. Of course the event is FREE. Complimentary cheese and grapes will be served, but the main course will be a fine goulash of intrigue, fascination, and enlightenment. Please join us!
Founder & Executive Director
P.S. Do you enjoy barbecue as much as goulash? Then come to Lick Observatory’s BBQ with the Stars atop Mt. Hamilton on Saturday, September 15. The “stars” will be literal, of course. But they will also be as figurative — and legendary — as Falkow and Relman (above). Good music and food will surround you as you learn from such luminous Wonderfest supporters as author Timothy Ferris, cosmologist Alex Filippenko, and planet-hunter Geoff Marcy.
This is the third taproot episode of Radical Physics. The “bad law of physics” in the title refers to a common misstatement of Newton’s first law of motion (N1). Once inertia is properly understood, then the power, scope, and surprise of the real N1 can be appreciated.
Are you available for short-notice excitement? David Pogue, heir to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s host position at NOVA ScienceNOW, will present a special screening of NOVA’s Hunting the Elements next Wednesday, April 4, at the Randall Museum Theater.
YOU are invited to this free event hosted by Wonderfest. Exploits will begin at 8:00 PM with an introduction and behind-the-scenes exposé by the witty Pogue. Then, a bit before 9:00, we’ll start “Hunting the Elements” on Randall’s big screen. Here is a preview of the show.
And here are the particulars:
WHO: David Pogue, host for PBS-NOVA and columnist for Scientific American & the NY Times WHAT: A special screening of Hunting the Elements plus a behind-the-scenes confessional(!) WHEN: 8:00 – 11:00 PM, Wednesday, April 4, 2012 WHERE: Randall Museum Theater, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 94114
HOW: FREE. Co-presented with the Bay Area Science Festival.
See you at 8:00 next Wednesday, … but I suggest that you arrive early!
P.S. Please don’t forget about Wonderfest’s presentation of Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter on Wednesday, April 18. Prof. Terrence Deacon, UC Berkeley neuroscientist and Anthropology Department chair, will offer exciting new insights into purpose, feeling, and meaning — i.e., into our understanding of consciousness!
P.P.S. SkeptiCal 2012, the Northern California Science and Skepticism Conference, happens in the Berkeley Marina on Saturday, April 21. Featured speakers include UC’s Alison Gopnik on the Philosophical Baby, NASA’s David Morrison on Doomsday 2012, and Miracle Detective’s Indre Viskontas on Why debunking often falls flat. Discount tickets to SkeptiCal are available here, but only until April 1st. No fooling’!
For over a decade, November’s approach has gotten Bay Area science lovers all hot and bothered: Wonderfest was near!
Now that Wonderfest is the Bay Area Beacon (not Festival) of Science, and its events are spread throughout the year, perhaps we are all feeling the effects of November nostalgia and Wonderfest withdrawal.
BASF to the rescue! The Bay Area Science Festival (BASF) includes several Wonderfest-like presentations. In fact, one BASF event is actually co-produced by Wonderfest, and several other events involve long-time Wonderfest friends.
On Nov. 5, Wonderfest joins the Mt. Tamalpais Astronomy Program in presenting a lecture on one of the great mysteries of science: dark matter. This weird stuff constitutes more than 80% of the material universe, but we only observe it through its gravitational tug on the other 20%. Otherwise, dark matter is—in every sense of the word—dark to us.
But Wonderfest’s contribution to BASF will enlighten the subject a bit! UC Berkeley astrophysicist Dr. Michael Kuhlen will present a lecture and slide show entitled The Milky Way as a Dark Matter Laboratory. Immediately afterwards, Urban Astronomer Paul Salazar will lead a laser-guided tour of the gorgeous Mt. Tam night sky. And, finally, the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers will provide their big telescopes for a close-up public viewing of the heavens.
This Mt. Tam presentation is just one of many such “star parties” taking place throughout the Bay Area on that first Saturday evening in November. So, if getting to Marin is a challenge, consider one of the other BASF astronomy events closer to home.
The choreographer of the entire BASF Star Party series is the winner of Wonderfest’s first Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization, Andy Fraknoi. Besides working behind the scenes at BASF, Andy will be speaking about dwarf planet Pluto’s ignominious demotion at the single biggest BASF event on Sunday, Nov. 6. This same huge science bash—at AT&T Park, no less—will feature Wonderfest friend Zeke Kossover and his legendary Physics Circus.
One other BASF event that may particularly energize Wonderfest fans is the Science Trivia Contest at Ask a Scientist on Wednesday, Nov. 2. Why not drop by? If you’re worried that the competition may be stiff, take heart: at least one team (the Wonderfest team, including yours truly) will probably provide comic relief, unintentionally.
Tucker Hiatt Founder
P.S. It’s official: in the eyes of the state of California, Wonderfest is an independent nonprofit corporation. Now we are waiting for IRS acknowledgement of Wonderfest’s 501(c)(3) tax exemption.
Ready to put your science smarts to the test? Tonight we will be celebrating the Bay Area Science Festival the best way we know how — with a boisterous science trivia contest hosted by Robin Marks of Discovery Street Tours. (It’s just like a pub trivia night, but without all those other boring categories.) Even if you don’t know your cortex from a coprolite, come enjoy a night of fascinating science trivia and general revelry. You can bring your own team of ringers with you, assemble a team with others on the spot, or just come to cheer, hang out, and learn stuff. The winning team will receive an awesome prize and a really cool feeling of superiority that should last at least several days. Six people max per team. Bring your own writing utensils.
I am especially excited about our next event, just two days away. On Thursday, September 22, we will explore Does Quantum Weirdness Influence the Brain? at the Randall Museum Theater in San Francisco. I am “especially excited” for two reasons: (1) this is the first Wonderfest collaboration with Ask a Scientist, and (2) this title question involves topics that get my wonder gland working overtime.
To get some overtime yourself, please take another look at the “blurb” that described this talk in the last Wonderfest newsletter:
Neuroscientists say that there is a mystery at the core of our understanding of consciousness. Physicists say that there is a mystery at the core of our understanding of quantum mechanics. Do these two mysteries have anything to do with each other? UC Berkeley physicist Stan Klein, a founding member of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, will help us to get a good scientific handle on this thorny, important, and controversial topic. Find out what Dr. Klein has to say about the role of “quantum weirdness” as it relates to the awesome capabilities of the brain, personal awareness, free will, and even parapsychology.
Wonderfest fans have asked for clarification regarding the two mysteries mentioned here. I try to provide this in the paragraphs below.
The “mystery of conscious awareness” may be best seen in the phenomenon of subjective experience. Consider a specific example: the subjective experience of warmth. I know what it is to be warm, i.e., to feel warmth. Poca, the wonder dog, seems to feel warmth, too: she reacts to it the way I do, and she has much the same warmth-sensing nervous system circuitry that I have.
Even the 1-mm-long worm called C. elegans seems to experience warmth. That’s a much tougher “call,” however, because worm behavior is harder to interpret than dog behavior. And, more to the point, worm nerve circuitry is VERY much simpler than dog and human nerve circuitry.
But let’s compare the circuitry of C. elegans to the circuitry of a home thermostat. A thermostat “senses” warmth, but few people claim that a thermostat has a subjective experience of warmth.
C. elegans has about 300 circuit elements (“neurons”). A complicated thermostat may also have a few hundred circuit elements (including many transistors). Neurons are not transistors, of course, but these two types of “switches” appear to perform similar functions. This is why the term circuitry is used by both neuroscientists and electrical engineers.
Here, in a nutshell, is the mystery (or at least one mystery) of conscious awareness: Why do we say that C. elegans might be aware of warmth, while we do not say that the thermostat might be aware of it?
Let me rephrase the question in terminology first made famous by philosopher Thomas Nagel. Why do these two questions have such different answers: “What is like to be a warm C. elegans?” “What is it like to be a warm thermostat?”
To be a warm C. elegans might be at least a tiny bit like being a warm dog or a warm human. But to be a warm thermostat is not “like” anything. Thermostats are not aware. Thermostats do not have subjective “conscious” experiences. (We believe!)
Where does quantum “weirdness” come into this? The kind of quantum weirdness that seems most relevant to what goes on in the brain is called superposition. Superposition refers to one quantum having two irreconcilable attributes at the same time. For example, an electron might be both here and there simultaneously; or a photon might be both “spin up” and “spin down” simultaneously.</>
Bear in mind that superposition is evident in the quantum realm: the realm of the very small and, sometimes, the very cold. The brain’s smallest relevant components seem huge by quantum standards. And those components function in a warm environment: a room temperature body.
Here, in a nutshell, is the mystery (or at least one mystery) of quantum physics: How does the weird indefiniteness (superposition) of the micro-world become the ordinary definiteness of the macro-world. An electron may be both here and there, but a Buick is either here or there, not both. What about a neuron? Can a neuron both fire and not fire at the same time? And even if so, could this influence consciousness?
Does quantum weirdness influence the brain? I can’t wait to entertain such a question with Prof. Klein … and with you. See you on Thursday!
Were you a little disappointed(!) by last spring’s Rapture no-show? Well, maybe Wonderfest can help!
On Sunday, August 28, you are cordially invited to San Francisco’s Roxie Theater to learn about Real Doomsdays: How Life Could End on Earth. This trademark Wonderfest dialogue will feature two outstanding speakers: UCSC’s Greg Laughlin and NASA’s Chris McKay.
Here’s a compact, eminently forwardable summary of all the specifics, in case you don’t want to send this entire message to your friends. (But please do spread the word!)
WHAT: A public science dialogue on Real Doomsdays: How Life Could End on Earth
WHO: UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist Greg Laughlin and NASA planetologist Chris McKay
WHERE: Roxie Theater, 3117 – 16th Street, San Francisco <http://roxie.com/info/directions.cfm>
WHEN: 1:00-2:30 PM, Sunday, August 28, 2011
HOW: It’s FREE, from your science-lovin’ friends at Wonderfest <http://wonderfest.org>.
WHY: Because we’re curious creatures.
Recall that Wonderfest, now the Bay Area Beacon (not Festival) of Science, will not be producing a weekend festival as it has since 1998. Instead, events like this Doomsday dialogue will pepper the calendar year-round. Our venues will change, as well. This event at the Roxie promises plush seating and good munchies. Add some Earth-shattering science insights, and perhaps a rapturous experience will ensue after all!
Wondrous regards, Tucker Hiatt, Wonderfest director
P.S. For a beautiful overview of past Wonderfest dialogues, please revisit the Wonderfest website. Technical director (and Picturoo CEO) Eric Yao has assembled finely edited videos of dialogues from the past three years. They — and even a master list of ALL Wonderfest dialogues since 1998 — appear under the Archives menu. Thank you, Eric!
The previous issue of this newsletter described how Wonderfest is “merging” with the Bay Area Science Festival (BASF). The unfortunate title of that message, “Wonderfest becomes BASF,” disappointed a few thoughtful folks who are fond of Wonderfest, and they made their disappointment clear.
We all want BASF to be a glorious success. And we can be proud that key elements of Wonderfest promise to be a big part of that success. However, Wonderfest is not “becoming” BASF. In fact, Wonderfest is beginning a year-long, multi-faceted period of profound growth and experimentation:
(1) After fourteen years as “The Bay Area Festival of Science,” Wonderfest’s subtitle is becoming “The Bay Area Beacon of Science” — reflecting that growth and experimentation.
(2) Wonderfest is joining forces with San Francisco’s original “science cafe,” Ask a Scientist, to produce regular science evenings at accessible venues throughout the Bay Area. Science dialogues and lectures will flourish year-round, not just during one weekend in November. Ask a Scientist creator Juliana Gallin is convinced—as am I—that together we can engage more people with science than either of our two independent institutions did in years past. Our first joint-venture event is scheduled for August. Stay tuned for news of its subject and speaker(s).
(3) Wonderfest is producing an extended series of online science videos. These “Wonderings” will complement more formal online fare like that of Khan Academy. Wonderings videos will be lively and witty, diverse and fun. Most of all, they will be compelling and accurate and wonder-inspired. A hint of the hundreds(!) of Wonderings to come can be seen in this prototype entitled She Has a Need for Speed. YouTube phenom Jack Conte is helping Wonderfest to produce the Wonderings AND to post them on YouTube in ways that will earn large viewerships and, consequently, engage a lot of people with science.
Do YOU have a question that can inspire an exciting episode of Wonderings? If so, please send it here. Perhaps even send it in simple YouTube video format (by attaching the URL). This is what the celebrity(!) questioner did in She Has a Need for Speed. Good questions—in video format or not—will be featured in upcoming episodes.
I hope you are (nearly!) as excited by the evolving Wonderfest as I am.
Tucker Hiatt, Wonderfest Director
P.S. Early evidence of the collaboration between Wonderfest and Ask a Scientist can be seen in person on Wednesday, June 8, at 7:00pm. A certain Wonderfest director will be addressing “How to Blend Physics Into Your Worldview” at San Francisco’s Bazaar Cafe as a part of Ask a Scientist’s How-To Night. If you have time, please stop by!