Lecturology at the MoS

Boston’s [Museum of Science](http://www.mos.org/) has been running a series of free, public lectures called “Lecturology”. These are sort of popular science lectures, designed to be accessible to a wide variety of individuals. I have attended two such lectures this week; one was good, the other, not so good.

The first lecture (the good one) was on Tuesday night, and was entitled “Warped Passages”. The featured lecturer was [Lisa Randall](http://www.physics.harvard.edu/people/facpages/randall.html), a professor of physics at [Harvard University](http://www.harvard.edu/). Her lecture was an overview of her book, aaa|Warped Passages|0060531088|aaa, “Unraveling the mysteries of the universe’s hidden dimensions.” I arrived early enough to get tickets in the main auditorium. It was a full house. Lisa gave a brief overview of her research into [string theory](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_theory), including the concept of [branes](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Branes) and [graviton](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graviton) particles (not to be confused with the [Gravitron](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravitron)). The concepts were definitely lofty, but Lisa did an admirable job to make it entertaining and informative. It is amazing to think that there could be unseen dimensions all around us, infinite in size, yet totally unable to be perceived by our senses. The most important thing that I took away is that within five years, we should know a lot more about these theories, thanks to the [Large Hadron Collider](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider), or LHC, being assembled in Switzerland. This machine will collide protons, in the hope of gaining insight into the fundamental particles and forces that make up the universe. The results of experments in the LHC could help to prove (or disprove) string theory.

The second lecture (the not so good one) was on Friday night. The lecture itself was entitled “The Great Scientific Breakthroughs of the 20th Century”. The featured speaker was [Alan Lightman](http://web.mit.edu/humanistic/www/faculty/lightman.html), an adjunct professor of humanities at [MIT](http://www.mit.edu/). The “host” of the lecture was [Christopher Lydon](http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/lydon/), who is the host of a public radio show called [Open Source](http://www.radioopensource.org/).

Becky and I got to the museum about 15 minutes after the tickets became available, and were unable to get tickets for the main auditorium. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to take overflow seating, which is held in the “Science Live!” auditorium in the lower levels of the museum. The main presentation is recorded by a webcam, and broadcast to the secondary auditorium over the museum’s network. (On a side note, it was quite humorous to watch the museum personnel setting up the projection system, which appeared to be running Mac OS 8 or 9, and Netscape Navigator 4.7. Yikes!)

The basic idea of the lecture was that Alan would start off the program by introducing what he considered the greatest 25 scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century – relativity, DNA, fission, etc. Then Christopher would interview him and hopefully create some good dialogue on the subject of scientific breakthroughs.

What actually happened was a train wreck. Alan did an okay job of introducing the breakthroughs. Though he was a bit dry and terse, he got his point across. But when the ‘interview’ started, things fell apart. From what I can tell, the two men had never met. They seemed not to have discussed the topic of the evening beforehand, and Christopher seemed to be totally unprepared. I don’t think he knew anything about Alan, and he definitely didn’t get very far in helping us to learn anything about him or his thoughts. Christopher was constantly asking inane, useless questions. It would have been wonderful to hear him ask questions about these great scientific breakthroughs, what their impact was on the world, how they changed lives and changed the course of history, and so forth. And it would have been wonderful to hear Alan answer these questions. But Christopher dwelled on trivial matters such as a female scientist who served coffee out of laboratory crucibles (a funny side note which Alan had brought up earlier, but hardly worth bringing up later), and stifled any possibility of intelligent, enlightening discussion.

The best analogy I can make for the interaction between these two men is to compare them to the dog show commentators in [Best in Show](http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0218839/). In that movie, you had a sharp, focused dog expert, paired with a goofy, off-topic color commentator who asks questions like ‘Now tell me, which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?’ It’s hilarious to see the interaction of characters like those in a comedy film, but it’s extremely disappointing to see that type of interaction in what is supposed to be an educational forum.

Yes, educational. In fact, there was a high school class on a field trip sitting next to us in the auditorium. Their teacher was going to have them write up papers on the presentation. He was sitting right next to us, and we remarked to him that if his students turned in poor papers, it wouldn’t be their fault. He agreed.

I have never listened to Christopher’s radio show, but if it’s anything like what I heard last night, I have absolutely no desire to tune in. I feel bad for Alan. He certainly seemed to be an intelligent man, but Christopher’s hosting technique just didn’t bring that out.

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