“Physics to Prophecy” at the Lyne Starling Trimble Lecture

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23 September 2016

Prof. Matt Stanley before his Lyne Starling Trimble Lecture

On September 13th, Prof. Matt Stanley (NYU) presented the fourth Lyne Starling Trimble Science Heritage Public Lecture to a full house at the American Center for Physics. Professor Stanley, best known for his biography of Arthur Eddington, Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington, discussed two cases of how scientists have become “prophets of apocalypse.” The astronomer Carl Sagan and others argued in the 1980s that no nuclear war was winnable because expected levels of nuclear deployment would release enough dust and aerosols into Earth’s atmosphere to plunge the planet into mass die-offs and ecological collapse. At roughly the same time, Luis Walter Alvarez argued the K-T extinction resulted from a massive meteor impact.

Professor Stanley connected these two stories to the long history of nonscientist prophets and asked, “How can scientists make a reputable case for an apocalypse? How can we best communicate scientific knowledge to broader audiences?” These two cases illustrate that the resulting reputations among the public and among scientists do not necessarily line up. Sagan gained wide press but lost ground among his colleagues. The K-T impact, however, changed the way we all think of Earth’s relation to the solar system.

An announcement will be made this fall regarding the 2017 Trimble Lectures. The lineup includes Prof. Michael Gordin (Princeton University) and Prof. Allan Franklin (University of Colorado), the recipient of the Abraham Pais Prize for History of Physics for 2016.