Lyne Starling Trimble Public Lecture: From Physics to Prophecy

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Tuesday, 13 September 2016
American Center for Physics, College Park, Maryland

Zuoyue Wang

From Physics to Prophecy: Learning to Predict the Scientific Apocalypse

Presented by Matt Stanley, Professor of History & Philosophy of Science, NYU

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016
Talk: 6:30 p.m.

American Center for Physics
1 Physics Elipse
College Park, MD 20740

RSVP Closed


Generally, we don’t think much of end-time prophets.  A seemingly endless series of failed apocalyptic predictions have made the practice seem ridiculous.  But scientists now find themselves in that very role as they warn of global threats from environmental destruction to Ebola epidemics.  Scientists are (whether they like it or not) following in the footsteps of generations of prophets.  We are left with a difficult puzzle.  How can scientists make apocalypticism reputable? The two decades following the discovery of the K-T extinction witnessed increasing numbers of scientific predictions of the end of the world, and those stories can help us understand the challenge of turning physicists into prophets.  Carl Sagan embraced this apocalyptic role when cautioning about nuclear winter, and was quite effective in mobilizing popular and political support.  But this came at the cost of his standing in the scientific community.  Around the same time, astronomers and physicists attempting to warn of the danger of asteroid impacts tried to avoid Sagan’s prophetic mantle, and instead persuade largely through scientific channels.  They were largely unsuccessful, and particularly struggled with how to do this in a new age of 24-hour news and the Internet.  The story of these modern apocalypses can help us examine the deeper problem of the best ways to communicate scientific knowledge to broader audiences.


Matthew Stanley teaches and researches the history and philosophy of science. He holds degrees in astronomy, religion, physics, and the history of science and is interested in the connections between science and the wider culture. He is the author of Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington (Chicago 2007), which examines how scientists reconcile their religious beliefs and professional lives, and Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon (Chicago 2014), which explores how science changed from its historical theistic foundations to its modern naturalistic ones. His current project is a history of scientific predictions of the end of the world. Professor Stanley is also part of a nationwide National Science Foundation-funded effort to use the humanities to improve science education in the college classroom. He has held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study, the British Academy, and the Max Planck Institute. He currently runs the New York City History of Science Working Group. Professor Stanley was awarded a 2014-2015 Gallatin Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.