Physicist Ken Wharton may know as much about time travel as anyone on Earth. The crucial question becomes: Just how much can be known about this most problematic of sci-fi themes?!
Dr. Wharton is Professor of Physics & Astronomy at San José State University. With generous reference to popular movies, he will share his insights at Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center on Saturday, January 9, starting at 8:00 PM.
If The Time Machine, Back to the Future, and The Terminator stir fond memories — and perhaps even ardent hopes — please join Wonderfest at Chabot for Ken Wharton’s The Physics of Time Travel.
Tucker Hiatt, Founding Director
P.S. Although “the end of the year” may not mean much to time travelers, it can herald a time of generosity for tax payers. Will you please consider a year-end donation to Wonderfest, the Bay Area Beacon of Science? Your gift is fully tax-deductible, and every penny will further Wonderfest’s goal of enlarging and enriching the concept of scientific community. Happy New Year!
Space cadets and Star Fleet admirals have reason to rejoice at the lineup of Wonderfest events in late October.
Oct. 17, Mt. Tam — The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is getting a huge boost from the Breakthrough Foundation’s recent gift of 100 million(!) dollars. Chief Scientist for SETI Berkeley, Dan Werthimer, will describe the advances to come — inspired by this new funding AND by brilliant new technology — up on Mount Tamalpais this Saturday at 7:30 PM. Full information about this FREE event is available here: Breakthrough Listen: Grand New Search for ET.
Oct. 22, G.G.Park — Three outstanding Wonderfest speakers will enlighten crowds at the California Academy of Sciences NightLife next Thursday. NASA’s Chris McKay will present the challenges and mysteries of solar system exploration; UC Berkeley’s Dan Werthimer will discuss why we haven’t heard from ET, yet; and Cal Astronomy Professor Alex Filippenko will explore how a multiverse — not just a universe — helps us understand the incredible complexity of the cosmos. Please consult Wonderfest’s Cosmic NightLife for information and tickets.
P.S. Discount tickets for Wonderfest’s Houdini Séance are available for only ~ 2 more days. At 11:59pm on Thursday, Oct.15, our Kickstarter will terminate, and unsold tickets will be available at the Brava Theater box office at regular, undercounted prices. Ouch! If you haven’t already purchased tickets, please reconsider this Halloween spectacle of skepticism, magic, and science. It features skeptic Michael Shermer, magician Jamy Ian Swiss, and UCSF neuroscientist Melina Uncapher — if not the ghost of Harry Houdini! Please support Wonderfest by purchasing discount tickets (or other deeply-discounted Houdini Séance Kickstarter rewards, like Skeptic magazine subscriptions and Exploratorium “After Dark” tickets) before midnight Thursday.
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.
Do the similar-sounding words science and séance have similar origins? No such luck (for séance). Both words come from Latin verbs: science from scire, to know; séance from sedere, to sit! Wonderfest, the Bay Area Beacon of Science, promotes knowing. And, personally, as much as I do enjoy a good sit, knowing is better.
Wonderfest joins the Bay Area Science Festival, Bay Area Skeptics, and the Pan-Pacific International Exhibition in presenting The Official Houdini Séance 2015 at San Francisco’s Brava Theater on the anniversary of Houdini’s death, Halloween! That word “Official” is not hollow; we are backed by the estate of magician Sid Radner, friend and protégé of Houdini’s brother, Hardeen.
The 2015 Official Houdini Séance will be a spectacular presentation of science, skepticism, history, escapes, and magic. Speakers include Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society Founder, and Melina Uncapher, UCSF neuroscientist. To learn more and to purchase tickets, please visit our Kickstarter page. (All the links in this newsletter point to the Kickstarter page, so you might as well give in!)
The most controversial figure at our Houdini event is sure to be self-described “psychic medium” Terrie Huberman. Terrie will lead the Earnest Séance, the first of two séances to take place that evening. Magician/Mentalist Paul Draper will lead the second, the Magical Séance, where remarkable things are sure to happen!
Please do learn more about our undertaking (*ahem*) by watching magician Robert Strong’s sparkling 2-minute video that introduces the Kickstarter campaign. Robert, pictured below, is a member of Wonderfest’s Board of Directors, and he has risen (*ugh*) to this wonderful séance production challenge. Robert has put his head and his heart — not to mention his remarkable network of magical associates — into producing a Halloween event not to be missed.
But even if you can’t attend The Official Houdini Séance 2015, you can still contribute to the cause of science popularization by making a tax-deductible donation to Wonderfest. Just click on the very first Kickstarter “reward” option — supporting science/knowledge even when séancing/sitting somewhere else!
The Bay Area Beacon of Science derives its name from a fundamental human emotion: wonder. Upon birth, what emotion do we experience sooner and more profoundly? Even before love-of-mother, wonder envelopes us.
The bigger sister of wonder is the emotion of awe. Next Tuesday, UC Berkeley psychologist Craig L. Anderson will present his (and colleagues’) discoveries on the physiological origins — and the remarkable health consequences — of awe.
Perhaps this FREE presentation of Wonderfest’s The Physiology of Awe will inspire the very emotion that it explores! Please join us at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Art’s Innovation Hangar on Tuesday, July 28, at 7 o’clock. You will find details and registration info at the link above.
Founding Executive Director
P.S. Have you heard about the wonderful upgrade coming to Earth’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)? Russian philanthropist Yuri Milner has given $100 million to UC Berkeley SETI efforts, including those of Wonderfest Advisory Board president Dan Werthimer and frequent Wonderfest speaker Geoff Marcy. Fellow Wonderfest Advisor David Perlman writes about it in two SF Chronicle articles, published just yesterday and today.
Dr. Peter Schattner is a physicist and biologist whohas something profound to tell us about being human. Peter earned his physics PhD at MIT under Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg. Peter has held research and teaching positions incomputational biology and biomedical engineering as well as in physics. His most recent work, Sex, Love, and DNA, focuses on molecular biology, and was named the best general nonfiction book at the 2015 GreatSoutheast Book Festival.
Peter Schattner will enlighten and inspire us at San Francisco’s PianoFight on Monday, May 11, at 7 PM. Please come tothis FREE event early to get a good seat and to order tasty food and drink. Get details and register (and donate to the Wonderfest cause!),here.
Dr. Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist and an award-winning science writer. He has co-written two books with Stephen Hawking: A Briefer History of Time and The Grand Design. Leonard has also taught at Caltech, debated Deepak Chopra on ABC’s Nightline, and written screenplays for MacGyver and Star Trek. His latest book, The Upright Thinkers, explores “the human journey from living in trees to understanding the cosmos,” and will be the principal subject of this Wonderfest collaboration with the Commonwealth Club Silicon Valley.
Please enjoy The Evolution of Science with Leonard Mlodinow in Palo Alto’s Shultz Hall on Wednesday, May 13, at 6:30 PM. Here is more info. And, to get a WONDERFEST 40% ticket discount (with no ticketing fee), follow these steps: visit <http://bit.ly/science-evolution>, enter the quantity of tickets desired, and go straight to checkout; do not click on the “Apply” button.
P.S. Today, Thursday 4/30, is the last day to purchase discounted tickets to SkeptiCal, the NorCal Conference on Science and Skepticism which takes place at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center on Saturday, June 6. If you seek penetrating insights into the GMO controversy, into the search for other Earths, into the fallibility of medical research (and MUCH more), SkeptiCal is the exciting, day-long, affordable event for you.
Bees are amazing critters. They build ideal hexagonal honeycombs; they communicate through dance; and they solve the “traveling salesman” math problem while pollinating $20 billion worth of US crops each year. On Monday, April 6, at 7 PM, Wonderfest and Ask a Scientist present Noah Wilson-Rich, PhD — author, beekeeper, and Chief Scientist at The Best Bees Company — on Our Future with Bees.
Please join Dr. Wilson-Rich at a brand new Wonderfest venue: PianoFight. This new club is located in San Francisco at 144 Taylor Street. We and the bees will occupy PianoFight’s main dining/performance area where “classic California Americana and a twist on nostalgic concessions” will be served along with beer, wine, and vintage cocktails. This event is FREE, but please register here. Also, arrive early to enjoy the food & drink AND to make sure that you get a seat!
Nine days later, on Wednesday, April 15, Wonderfest and Ask a Scientist will take a deep look at our ancient scientific heritage when we present The Sciences in Ancient Greece and Rome: How Far Did They Get? at Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center. Our dynamic speaker, Dr. Richard Carrier, will reveal just how much the Greeks and Romans achieved — and how close they got to their own scientific revolution. Please purchase tickets directly from Chabot.
Aieee! I’m going to shorten these newsletters. I’ll announce upcoming events earlier in each message, and I’ll keep extraneous comments to a minimum. If you miss the extra tidings, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll wax a bit more poetic just for you. 🙂
On Wednesday, March 18, Wonderfest presents Love in the Time of Facebook with data scientist Carlos Diuk, smiling face pictured below. Dr. Diuk and his colleagues have studied the Facebook timeline posts of people who change their relationship status from “Single” to “In a relationship.” This anonymized and analyzed information tells us much about the start of love, its stages, and its occasional demise.
Please note that Wonderfest—in collaboration with Ask a Scientist—will be invading a brand new venue for this special event: Patreon headquarters, 230 – 9th Street in San Francisco. Patreon is a young, high-minded company that facilitates recurrent crowd-funding (patronage) of society’s creative souls: musicians, writers, graphic artists, … even science popularizers!
It’s true. Thanks to Patreon, some 65 Wonderfest “patrons” are now making monthly tax-deductible donations that help keep the Bay Area Beacon of Science afloat. Would you like to take part in this enterprising form of Wonderfest “membership”? For as little as $1 per month, through Patreon, you can join us in promoting the scientific outlook.
You can also support the cause by simply attending next week’s Love in the Time of Facebook; the admission charge of $5 goes entirely to Wonderfest. Since only 100 seats are available, prompt action is advised. Consider the benefits: you will learn what “big data” reveals about modern romance; you will enjoy complimentary snacks and drinks (courtesy of Patreon); and you will contribute to the brightness of Wonderfest, your favorite local beacon of science.
“Full disclosure: I cried at a movie about particle physics,” wrote Scientific American’s Clara Moskowitz. Clara is not alone: Particle Fever made me teary-eyed, too. Repeatedly. During both first AND second viewings! I cried over the joy and dedication of a community of ingenious explorers: the scientific community.
Wonderfest and the Commonwealth Club Silicon Valley present a special screening of PARTICLE FEVER on Tuesday, February 10, in Palo Alto. What makes this screening so special is follow-up commentary and Q&A with producer David Kaplan. Dr. Kaplan, physics professor at Johns Hopkins University, is the principal “actor” in Particle Fever.
The movie presents the inside story of six scientists — three of them Wonderfest speakers* — seeking to unravel deep DEEP mysteries of the universe. Their tool, our tool, is the Large Hadron Collider, conducting the biggest and most expensive experiment of all time. 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries join forces to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang. Their ultimate goal is to confirm or improve or undermine or overthrow the Standard Model of Particles and Fields: the “parts list” for construction of … everything.
Three evenings after Particle Fever, we will explore another, older fever: the febrile fires of LOVE. On February 13, back in San Francisco, Wonderfest and Ask a Scientist present LOVE AMONG THE NEURONS: A Neuroscience Guide to Valentine’s Day. UCSF psychiatrist and author Thomas Lewis will offer rich insights into romantic fever among living creatures, particularly the human type.
Frenchman Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot comprehend.” Perhaps. But in Dr. Lewis’s book A General Theory of Love (Random House, 2000), Lewis and his co-authors offer “An insightful look at the science of human emotions. … A rare example of the fusing of scientific rigor with literature eloquence.” – S.F. Examiner. A General Theory of Love has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and several other languages, … but not into French. Perhaps love is still fundamentally unreasonable in the land of Pascal. 😉
Precious few things are unequivocally good. Perhaps… love? …science? …an unexpected meal??
Of course, Wonderfest focuses on science. Wonderfest’s philosophy holds that the verifiable understanding of reality is an unequivocally good thing. It’s good for individual wellbeing, and it’s good for society. Wonderfest promotes the scientific outlook through its live presentations (experienced by 25,000 people since 1997) and its videos (watched by 1 million).
Will you help promote the scientific outlook by supporting Wonderfest? Will you become a formal Wonderfest Patron: donating as little as $1 per month while receiving interesting rewards and getting a tax deduction? (BTW, you can discontinue your Wonderfest patronage at any time; this is not a risky venture!)
As the Medici were patrons of 16th-century Florentine art, might you be a small-scale Patron (with a capital P) of 21st-century Bay Area science?
SPECIAL OPPORTUNITY — If you become a Wonderfest Patron by December 31st, you can bask in the warm glow of these two bonuses:
1) You will become a Wonderfest Founding Patron (since our Patron Program is still in its first year).
2) Your patronage will be MATCHED/DOUBLED dollar-for-dollar by an anonymous Prime Patron*!
As you consider this doubled-donation opportunity, please note some of the good work that Wonderfest’s directors have accomplished in just this past year:
Our Science Envoy Program trained Cal and Stanford PhD students to become the next generation of expert science communicators — the Carl Sagans, Jane Goodalls, and Neil deGrasse Tysons of tomorrow.
With funding from AT&T, Wonderfest produced Physics Meets the Monsters, a video series that encourages the study of introductory physics. For so many youngsters, physics can be THE gateway course to advanced science and engineering … and to fundamental intellectual growth.
Will you please become a Wonderfest Founding Patron? Your thoughtful tax-deductible donations will be MATCHED/DOUBLED, and you’ll be supporting the unequivocal good that is public scientific enlightenment.
Founding Executive Director
P.S. On the evening of Tuesday, January 13, Wonderfest will present BAD PHYSICS: Five Common Misconceptions About the Most Basic Science. Please click here to learn about this FREE exploration of simple yet deep insights into relativity, energy, radiation, E=mc^2, and quantum physics.
* These new double-donations will be provided every month into the foreseeable future, and will be expressed in the increased monthly donations of the Prime Patron.
This Thursday, when hands clasp around the Thanksgiving table, I may not say it, but I’ll think it: I’m thankful for science. Clean water, electricity, anesthetics, and high-speed travel have made my life better than the sweetest dreams of any pre-20th-century monarch. The modern benefits of science are practically innumerable.
Beyond these material goods are psycho-social goods that go hand-in-hand with science: curiosity, democracy, the very concept of progress. And consider free speech. Not only does science thrive in — and therefore encourage — an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, science confirms the general utility of all forms of free speech. G.K. Chesterton put it this way:
The theory of free speech, that truth is so much larger and stranger and more many-sided than we know of, that it is very much better at all costs to hear every one’s account of it, is a theory which has been justified upon the whole by experiment, but which remains a very daring and even a very surprising theory. It is really one of the great discoveries of the modern time.
This Thanksgiving, I will express appreciation for the scientific outlook AND for the people who promote it. We, at Wonderfest, will do our part* in early December by presenting the insights of UCLA geographer Jared Diamond and UC Berkeley psychologist Matthew Walker.
Three evenings later, on Friday, December 12, Wonderfest joins Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center in presenting Mysteries of the Sleeping Brain with Cal psychologist Matt Walker. Professor Walker has already spoken for a Wonderfest audience — in San Francisco. But his presentation was so good that we had to share the wealth with the East Bay. It truly was one of the outstanding presentations in Wonderfest’s 17-year history!
If/when your hands clasp in thanksgiving this Thursday, I hope you’ll keep science in mind.
Tucker Hiatt Founding Executive Director ___________________ * If you would like to do your part, too, won’t you consider helping Wonderfest to promote the scientific outlook? Here are three ways you can help: (1) Let AmazonSmile donate 0.5% of your purchase prices to Wonderfest whenever you shop via this special link; (2) Make a one-time Wonderfest donation here; (3) Make regular donations to the cause of science education and popularization by becoming a Wonderfest Patron. All Wonderfest donations are fully tax-deductible.
Since its founding in 1997, Wonderfest has been dedicated to the memory of astronomer Carl Sagan, perhaps the greatest science popularizer of the 20th century. We at Wonderfest join thousands of individuals and organizations around the world in celebrating Carl Sagan Day on November 9, 2014, the 80th anniversary of Carl’s birth.
Here is a *wonderful* 6-minute audio essay entitled “The Gifts of Carl Sagan.” It is written and spoken by Lauren Becker of the Center for Inquiry (CFI). Ms. Becker first presented it in 2006 on an episode of CFI’s “Point of Inquiry” podcast.
A simple confession: I don’t know the purpose of life.
Oh, maybe I’ve discovered the purpose of my life. But I don’t know the cosmic Purpose of life — Purpose with a capital P. The absence of cosmic Purpose is sometimes cited as the crucial shortcoming of modern societies. Such societies — such people — may be prosperous and even happy, but they can feel a little empty inside.
Consider, below, the Pink-Tufted Small Beast in a Night Landscape by Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Perhaps we are the beast. Humanity is well-coiffed, even regal in appearance, and slightly absurd. We sit at the edge of our eerily beautiful world, facing out toward a vast and mysterious universe … with our eyes closed.
What can give such a life Purpose? Fortunately, our eyes are not closed. The scientific enterprise, in particular, opens our eyes, pierces the darkness, and offers at least the hope of genuine Purpose. What irony! For 2500 years, Science has obviated the gods with purpose-shredding naturalism. And now, Science seems to be our best hope of finding Purpose — in the exploration of Nature itself.
“I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.” – Einstein
“Humility,” for sure. But with our humility comes a whiff of cosmic Purpose: “Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth,” said Gandhi. Poet Robert Frost put it directly and simply: “The best thing that we’re put her for’s to see.” And Einstein, once again: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”
Your curiosity about baseball(!) may not be holy, but I hope it’s deep enough to entice you to San Francisco’s StrEat Food Park on Wednesday, September 24, for The Physics of Baseball. Full details about this free event are here: .
The excitement of sports does help to bring a bit of purpose (with a little p) to billions of lives around the world. From the Olympic Games to Little League, sports make the heart pound in a way that science seldom does. Still, the two enterprises have much in common at the cosmic level. Listen to the great philosopher of baseball, Yogi Berra: “In baseball, you don’t know nothing.” But “You can observe a lot just by watching.” And “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”
“Whence?!” Yes: from where does/did our humanity arise? This is Wonderfest’s double-edged question for August 2014, … and for the ages.
On Wednesday, August 13, Wonderfest will join the Commonwealth Club Silicon Valley for a neuroscientific examination of what makes us human. Called Mind Puzzles, the event will draw on key insights of speaker Robert A. Burton’s A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves.
Dr. Burton argues — and provides evidence revealing — that “involuntary mechanisms … make unbiased thought impossible … [AND] create the illusion that we are rational creatures.” The illusion! This fundamental look at key aspects of our humanity will celebrate the remarkable success of modern neuroscience, while examining the numerous popular myths that have arisen from it.
On the very next Wednesday, August 20, back in San Francisco, Wonderfest will join Ask a Scientist in taking a look backward in search of our humanity. Whatever Happened to Homo erectus? will guide us through key transitions in human evolutionary history. Once we walked upright — freeing our hands — what fun was afoot. Oh, the humanity!
Our speaker, Dr. Henry Gilbert of CSU East Bay and UC Berkeley, discovered the 1-million-year-old Daka skull in Ethiopia’s Awash River valley. His insights into Homo erectus — and all early humans — will help us to put the sapiens into Homo sapiens.
As you consider attending these two fascinating events, please bear in mind the costs of keeping Wonderfest afloat. Most of our events are FREE. (Mind Puzzles is not, but a special Wonderfest promo code will grant the same low ticket price that Commonwealth Club members enjoy.) Whatever Happened to Homo erectus? is FREE. Still, we ask everyone to register and to make at least a $5 donation. This is a small price to pay for the excitement and illumination of understanding our origins.
Founding Executive Director
* Ahem. I meant “tax-deductibly donate,” of course!
“LET’S FIND OUT WHAT YOU’RE MADE OF!” yelled the scout troop leader. Since we were a group of wimpy greenhorns, this was not going to be much of a survival hike. At most, this stroll through the woods would generate a blister or two. Nobody would perish.
Nonetheless, even now, I appreciate the troop leader’s sentiment: he wanted us to learn more about ourselves. Self-knowledge (where “self” encompasses the entire universe!) is the impetus behind Wonderfest’s presentation of What Are You Made Of? at St. Helena’s Cameo Cinema next Monday evening, July 21. The enigmatic answer, by the way, seems to be well-captured by the blandly-titled Standard Model diagram below.
Our program will begin at 8:30 PM with a special screening of Particle Fever. This is the highly acclaimed cinematic account of the biggest, most complex experiment ever conceived: the Large Hadron Collider’s exploration of subatomic structure … i.e., of everything! And at the heart of that structure, as the Standard Model diagram asserts, is the elusive, hyper-potent Higgs boson. Evidently, the Higgs particle/field gives mass — the substance of being — to every bit of the material world.
After the movie, we will be treated to the expert commentary of UC Berkeley’s Surjeet Rajendran, a physics professor who understands both the Higgs AND the making of Particle Fever. Dr. Rajendran is a very close friend of David Kaplan, a star and producer of the movie; both physicists have made public appearances together to elucidate — and to spread — Particle Fever.
The Higgs boson walks into a catholic church. The priest asks, “What are YOU doing here?” The Higgs says, “You can’t have mass without me!” …Ugh… Later the same day, the news desk editor declares, “I don’t care what the Higgs boson headline is, just make sure we spell HADRON correctly!”
After the heaviness (*ahem*) of What Are You Made Of?, Wonderfest will go light with Science Laughs — back in San Francisco on Wednesday, July 23. Science comedian Norm Goldblatt will crack wise with jokes much better than those “standard models” above. Norm has appeared at comedy clubs throughout the Bay Area, on NPR’s Science Friday, and at the US Science and Engineering Festival in Washington DC. I hope you will join us at this FREE event by starting here.
Carl Sagan means a lot to Wonderfest. Since 1997, the fine print on our literature has often read: “Dedicated to the memory of Carl Sagan.” And from 2002 through 2010, Wonderfest proudly awarded the $5000 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization to nine Bay Area researchers who “contributed mightily to the public understanding and appreciation of science.”
Wonderfest lost funding for the Sagan Prize in 2011.* Since then, I have fantasized about which public-spirited scientists most deserve a re-funded Sagan Prize. Nobody comes to mind more often than NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay.
Evidently, Dr. McKay is a man who just can’t say “No” to speaking invitations. His name appears with remarkable regularity on Bay Area science event calendars. And a panel discussion on Mars, or on space travel, or on the origin (or end!) of life will be without him only if he is off doing research in the Atacama Desert or the Canadian Arctic.
Like Carl Sagan in his heyday, Chris McKay can opine with authority on astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. Significant, too, is McKay’s willingness to address controversial science topics. He has taken provocative public positions on the terraforming of Mars, on human-vs.-robotic space exploration, and on the likelihood of extraterrestrial life and intelligence.
The creative photo of Chirs McKay, at left, belies his friendliness and sense of humor. The image comes from a biographical feature article in the March issue of Discover magazine. As if to proclaim McKay’s “public scientist” status even more forcefully, the June issue of Scientific American includes his article (with Victor Parro García) entitled How to Search for Life on Mars. This researcher cares about public enlightenment!
Accordingly, on Monday evening, June 30, at SoMa StrEat Food Park, Chris McKay will make his record-setting seventh Wonderfest appearance! The Road to Europa is a FREE event produced in collaboration with SF in SF. Dr. McKay will present expert commentary on perhaps the best science fiction film of 2013, Europa Report. After the movie’s screening, Chris will address its three key scientific features: the survivability of a trip to the Jupiter system; human vs. robot exploratory performance; and the type of life that might conceivably call Europa’s ocean “home.” What a deep treat it will be!
I cannot praise Chris McKay more highly than to describe his contributions to Bay Area science as Saganesque. Someday, Chris WILL be able to accept Wonderfest’s revived Carl Sagan Prize — although, as a NASA employee, he might have to refuse the cash! Until then, the best we can do is to offer him our eager questions and thunderous applause. I hope you’ll register for The Road to Europa, and enjoy the penetrating insight, dry wit, and fierce dedication of Dr. Christopher P. McKay.
Tucker Hiatt, Founding Executive Director ___________________ * Annual Reviews generously supported the Sagan Prize for nine years. If you know of another public-spirited organization that might help Wonderfest to reestablish this highly successful encourager of public science, please drop me a line at TuckerAtWonderfest.org.
The sky split open, and “something like the sun fell” through. This was one eyewitness account of last year’s meteor strike over Chelyabinsk, Russia. The 60-foot-wide, 13,000-ton hunk of asteroid exploded into several pieces, with consequences that injured 1000 people. The meteor’s total energy of impact equalled 30 Hiroshima bombs.
NASA planetary impact expert Kevin Zahnle reminds us that Earth is constantly struck by interplanetary debris: mostly tiny bits, but occasional big chunks, too. When a truly huge object smacks Earth, the devastation is spread far beyond the point of contact. Impact backsplash rocks are flung all over the globe. As they fall back to Earth, this backscatter reentry debris superheats the entire atmosphere. The dinosaurs, for example, were globally roasted as air temperatures rose to ~700°F (pizza oven temperatures!) following the K-Pg impact of 66 million years ago.
If you can’t attend When Worlds Collide, could a fake, inert, stand-in presentation provide some of the benefits? Of course, an ersatz Wonderfest event just can’t replace the real McCoy! But inert and inactive medical treatments often provide some of the benefits of real medicine.
Take a spectacular (and pointed!) example… As far as careful scientific studies can tell, acupuncture derives its health benefits entirely from the placebo effect! There may be no finer placebo expert on Earth than Dr. Howard Fields of UC San Francisco. Dr. Fields will present Placebo and the Illusory Nature of Perception at 7:00pm on Monday, June 2, at San Francisco’s StrEat Food Park.
The placebo effect is so powerful that this presentation (co-produced with Ask a Scientist) should come with a warning:
P.S. There’s still time to snag tickets to SkeptiCal, the Northern California Science & Skepticism Conference. Expert presentations will address science literacy, climate change, astrology, and, generally, the boundaries between science and pseudoscience. SkeptiCal takes place in Oakland on Saturday, May 31. BTW, there WILL be time to scoot from Oakland to Mt. Tam to make Wonderfest’s “Collisions” event later that evening.
P.P.S. “Live better, help often, wonder more” is the motto of Sunday Assembly, the deity-free church movement. If you haven’t enjoyed this newsletter, then you surely won’t enjoy my “wonder” presentation at Sunday Assembly Silicon Valley on June 8. 😉
My childhood hero wasn’t real. He wasn’t even fully human. Science Officer Spock, the supremely logical being of Star Trek fame, was half human and half Vulcan. He spent parts of many Star Trek episodes trying to suppress his emotions—or at least to control them. Perhaps Spock was not such a weird hero for a 12-year-old boy getting deeply involved with science … and with the emotional perils of puberty.
Given my still Spock-loving disposition, it is odd that, very soon, I will be giving a short public talk on one particular emotion. At Sunday Assembly in Oakland on April 27, I will present “A Passion for Reason,” and my subject will be the emotion called wonder.
Sunday Assembly is a new endeavor that some people describe as “church without God.” It was founded in 2013 by two British stand-up comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Some 30 congregations around the globe now preach the Sunday Assembly gospel: “Live better, help often, wonder more.”
Sanderson Jones will be attending this particular Sunday Assembly in Oakland, so I suppose I’d better do a good job with my little talk. Its title is borrowed from Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at USC and the Salk Institute. Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994) argues that “biological drives, body states, and emotions may be an indispensable foundation for rationality.”
Our most rational selves, the part that makes “free will” decisions, seems to depend on our emotions. Damasio writes, “It is as if we are possessed by a passion for reason, a drive that originates in the brain core, permeates other levels of the nervous system, and emerges as either feelings or non conscious biases to guide decision making…”
… To guide decision making. I hope I am making the right decision—non-expert that I am—to speak at Sunday Assembly about the emotion of wonder. But it is this emotion that got Wonderfest started 17 years ago, that inspires today’s Wonderfest events, and that, perhaps a bit, leads you to be reading this newsletter.
Wonderfest’s next wonder-inspired event is The Mysteries of Sleep, set for Wednesday, May 7, at StrEat Food Park in San Francisco. UC Berkeley psychology professor Matt Walker, an outstanding speaker, will tell us about the importance of sleep for learning, for memory, for creativity, and for the regulation of emotion. Maybe Dr. Walker (and a good night’s sleep) will help us to regulate — I hope to enhance — our experience of wonder.
Wonderfest Founding Director
P.S. If your scientific sense of wonder seeks a Saganesque balance with healthy skepticism (and whose doesn’t?!), you’ll love SkeptiCal, the Northern California Science and Skepticism Conference. Admission to great talks on science literacy, astrology, climate change, con games, psychological pseudoscience (and more) will cost only $40 until May 1. After that, the price goes up, so act promptly. SkeptiCal happens at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center on Saturday, May 31.
It’s one of the most compelling detective stories of all time: What key human skills best elevated us past our knuckle-walking forebears? Was it tool use? … complex language? … insider trading?
One of the great advances in human cultural evolution was the invention of the stone-tipped spear. With such a weapon, our African ancestors could hunt masterfully. More significant, perhaps, were the communication skills that such weaponry demanded. Teaching others how to fix stone points to wooden shafts “is so complex that it absolutely, positively requires language,” says John Shea, Professor of Paleoanthropology at Stony Brook University.
Stone-tipped throwing spears were unknown on Earth prior to 80,000 years ago. Or so we thought. Now, Yonatan Sahle and his colleagues have uncovered evidence of such weapons dating from some 280,000 years ago. Sahle et al have turned back a key clock on hominid cultural evolution by ~ 200 millennia!
Wonderfest joins California State University, East Bay, in presenting Yonatan Sahle to discuss the surprising details and the larger implications of this remarkable discovery. Dr. Sahle’s talk, The African Origins of Human Intelligence, will be presented at CSU East Bay’s University Theater at 6:00 PM on Wednesday, February 19. I hope you will register at Eventbrite, and join us for this FREE event!
Founding Executive Director
P.S. Wonderfest Board member Jacob Bien, statistics professor at Cornell, recently had a mischievous idea: let’s get Tucker to submit a video script to TED-Ed, the purely educational wing of the well-known “TED talks” organization. Sure enough, Jacob and Tucker succeeded, and so has their TED-Ed video. Entitled How Fast Are You Moving Right Now?, it has earned over 200,000 views! However, despite our best efforts, Wonderfest is mentioned only peripherally in the video metadata. We are still working on TED-Ed to toot the Wonderfest horn.
Wonderfest calls itself the “Beacon of Science.” Why science? Among all human endeavors, what makes science particularly worthy of illumination?
PROSPERITY. Coupled with human freedom, science has been the driving force behind global prosperity. Learning how the world works has helped both culture and comfort to flourish. Since the time of Galileo, our understanding of the natural world — including of ourselves — has grown fantastically. Is there even one person alive today who would honestly prefer to live in the 16th century? I mean this quite literally: Better a pauper today than a prince only a few centuries ago! Why? Because of science — and the technology (from cotton underwear to electricity to anesthetics) that it has made possible. Science is the engine of prosperity.
PLEASURE. Richard Feynman, we are told, did physics not for the glory or the prizes but for the fun of it. Lacking Feynman’s genius, the rest of us may find science’s fun to be even more accessible. Whether I am grasping the mind-boggling scope of the energy conservation law, or, through neuroscience, finally seeing how a magician’s sleight of hand plays with my powers of perception, I take great pleasure in finding things out. And this is a pleasure that neither poverty nor infirmity can deny me. Science is as basic a pleasure as music, sex, and even dessert!
PROFUNDITY. Ideally, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, science is skepticism married to wonder. Note that wonder comes first: it is probably the first emotion we experience after birth! It is certainly the emotion that Wonderfest strives to nourish beyond childhood. With humility, science asks some of the deepest questions. And it often provides wondrous, natural, even mechanistic answers that make mysticism and the supernatural seem banal. Our species yearns for transcendence, and, strangely, science delivers. Not in the afterlife, but in THIS life — as it helps us to transcend personal egocentricism, conceptual anthropocentrism, and cosmic geocentrism. Sometimes, at its best, science also fills us with awe — with deep acknowledgment of the mysterious rather than the mystical.
“All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike,” said Einstein, “and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
Happy new year, and wondrous regards!
Founding Executive Director
P.S. To help Wonderfest continue its pro-science mission, please make a year-end, tax-deductible gift here. Or, for as little as $1 per month, become a formal Wonderfest patron here. Finally, if you shop at Amazon.com on this last day of 2013, AmazonSmile will donate $5 to Wonderfest. No matter how you choose to give, with every penny Wonderfest will help to promote the scientific outlook — in the Bay Area and beyond.