A Series of Public Lectures


From 2002 through 2004, the Department of Physics and Astronomy embarked on an outreach program to provide interesting and diverse public lectures to students and the general public.  These science-based lectures focused on interdisciplinary topics that were presented by Northwestern faculty as well as by outside speakers.  The lectures were selected based on their appeal to the general public, with the intent to help the public understand the science behind popular subject matters.

The lectures were made possible through grants and partnerships with the Hewlett Fund for Curricular Innovation, the Division of Information Technology at Northwestern University, and Adler planetarium.  The lectures were taped and digitized, and are posted below for you to enjoy.

If you have any questions regarding the material covered in any of these lectures or if you would like more information regarding the Public Lecture Series, please contact Professor Farhad Yusef-Zadeh at zadeh@northwestern.edu.

You may also be interested in videos from the Heilborn Symposium.

  Arthur Schmidt, Ph.D.
"Music of the Spheres"
April 17, 2002

Hearing is one of the major senses through which we perceive the world around us, and derive enjoyment through music. Can we perceive a musical tone from the sound of a plank dropping on the floor? Why are warning sounds shrill and mating sounds deep low calls? We will explore the basic principles of physics related to sound and music through a series of demonstrations. We will touch on some aspects of the human perception of sound and what impact this has on musical tones.

Lecture by Arthur Schmidt, Ph.D.
Real Player Presentation

Prof. Irving Klotz   Professor Irving Klotz
"Copenhagen and the German Atomic Bomb Project:  Bending Perception to Wish"
May 9, 2002

I shall describe the German atomic bomb efforts during World War II and the scientists involved therein. Then I will present the fictions that appeared, after World War II, from the German scientists themselves and from a rising cadre of revisionist historians, journalists and dramatists, culminating in the current highly successful play Copenhagen. Thereafter, I will disclose large portions of the Farm Hall transcripts, supersecret documents released recently of surreptitiously recorded private conversations held 50 years ago (from May-December 1945) of the German atomic scientists interned in England. A comparison of statements from different sources is most revealing.

Lecture by Professor Irving Klotz
Real Player Presentation
Dr. Michael Faison   Michael Faison, Ph.D.
"What's Your Sign?  Astrology, Astronomy, and Pseudoscience"
May 30, 2002

Astrology is an almost unavoidable aspect of modern American culture. 90% of Americans know their "sign", and 30% of Americans believe that the positions of celestial objects can somehow affect their daily lives or their personalities. Some people even base their medical decisions, choose a mate, or refuse to hire a job candidate based on astrology. In this lecture, we will discuss the basics of traditional western astrology, the historical connections between astronomy and astrology, why people believe in astrology, and why it actually doesn't work.  (NOTE -- This video will only play correctly on Windows computers equipped with Windows Media Player.)

Lecture by Michael Faison, Ph.D.
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Question and Answer Session
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Dr. Laurie Brown   Professor Laurie Brown
"The History of Physics:  Paul Dirac -- A Beautiful Mind in the 20th Century"
December 4, 2002

The history of science in the 20th century would be incomplete without discussing the impact Paul Dirac had in predicting that antimatter must exist, one of the most remarkable discoveries of the century. All the elementary particles that make up matter, as well as the more exotic ones produced in high-energy collisions, have antiparticles of the same mass and opposite charge. The antiparticle of the ordinary electron is the positron, which was predicted on purely theoretical grounds by Dirac around 1930, then detected in cosmic rays in 1932. Dirac was born in Bristol, England, in 1902, and in this centennial year of his birth, Professor Brown discusses this giant of theoretical physics, his achievements, and his "beautiful mind".

Lecture by Professor Laurie Brown
Real Player Presentation
  Professor Emile Okal
"Tsunami: The Ultimate Sea Waves, Long-range Vectors of Death and Destruction"
February 5, 2003

Tsunami are gravitational oscillations of masses of ocean water, triggered by major underwater earthquakes, submarine landslides, volcanic eruptions and bolide impacts at sea. They can propagate efficiently, if relatively slowly, across large ocean basins, exporting death and destruction to faraway coastlines. We will discuss mitigation efforts for tsunami hazard, as well as ongoing research on tsunami warning algorithms, implemented in the wake of major circum-Pacific earthquakes. The case of challenging events, such as the 1998 Papua New Guinea tsunami, which killed 2200 people along a 30-km stretch of coastline, will be analyzed, as well as recent field work aimed at reconstructing a massive 1946 event in the Aleutian islands.

Lecture by Professor Emile Okal
Real Player Presentation
  Professor Mark S. Robinson
"Asteroids: Their History, their Impact on Earth and their Complex Geology"
March 5, 2003

Scientists believe that asteroids and comets may have helped life develop on Earth, and it now appears that Earth impacts of asteroids and comets have most likely caused large-scale climate changes and mass extinction events. Our first close-up look at an asteroid was provided by the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker spacecraft. This small, yet amazing spacecraft orbited the asteroid Eros for a year, collecting a wealth of scientific measurements, before landing on the surface. The spacecraft's comprehensive first look brings many questions into focus: Are asteroids a hazard to life on Earth and, if so, can we protect ourselves? Are asteroids a resource for future space explorers? Do primitive asteroids hold the key to understanding the Solar System's formation? This talk will present an overview of the NEAR results in the context of asteroid interactions with other bodies, especially the Earth.

Lecture by Professor Mark Robinson
Real Player Presentation
  Professor Walter Lewin
"The Birth and Death of Stars"
May 7, 2003

Like people, stars are born and die. Their birth has its origin in a relationship between gravitation collapse and thermonuclear ignition. As long as its nuclear fuel lasts, a star is alive. However it is doomed when its nuclear reactor runs out of fuel, leading to fatal and violent consequences. (Do not worry, our Sun has another 5 billion years to go before that happens). The remaining skeletons in the graveyard come in different forms and shapes such as white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes. This talk will discuss the fascinating history of how they were discovered, and some of their bizarre and even incomprehensible qualities and behavior.

Lecture by Professor Walter Lewin
Real Player Presentation
  Fred Jerome
"Einstein and the FBI"
December 5, 2003

During a 23-year campaign to undermine Einstein's reputation, the FBI tapped Einstein's telephone, opened his mail, and attempted to revoke his citizenship. Fred Jerome is the author of The Einstein File, and he discusses the FBI's findings as he weaves a story worthy of a Cold War-era spy novel.

Lecture by Fred Jerome
Real Player Presentation
  Doug Roberts, Ph.D.
"The Changing Face of Mars"
May 5, 2004

Mars is one of the most recognizable objects in the night sky and has drawn humans to imagine the conditions on our neighbor planet. The view of Mars in popular culture is a combination of contemporary scientific facts and a reflection of broad pubic conceptions. From astrology, which connects the motion of planets to fortunes here on Earth, to imagery using the earliest telescopes, to the spectacular images from the surface of Mars from the current rover mission, the facts of Mars are constantly updated. The common view of Mars includes these "scientific" data combined with historical and popular perception. The changing view of Mars throughout history will be explored in this talk, including possible implications of water, life and human exploration of our nearest planetary neighbor.

Lecture by Doug Roberts, Ph.D.
Real Player Presentation
  Miller Goss, Ph.D.
"Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-1981):  The First Woman Radio Astronomer"
November 5, 2004

What was it like to be one of the few woman scientists in a man's world, 60 years ago?  Although radio waves from space were first detected in 1930, until the radar technology developed during World War II became widely available, the number of radio astronomers was very small.  In 21st-century America, it is hard to imagine how difficult it was for the first women astronomers to carry out research when faced with institutional discrimination.  This talk traces the important scientific contributions of one of the first radio astronomers, Ruby Payne-Scott, an Australian pioneer in radiophysics and radio astronomy.  It ranges from her early days as a science teacher in Australia to her career as a radio astronomer, including the challenges she met as a woman in the male-dominated world of post-war science.

Lecture by Miller Goss, Ph.D.
Real Player Presentation
  Professor Porter W. Johnson
"The Physics of Baseball"
October 25, 2006

Baseball is by far the oldest organized professional sport.  Its development reflects the history of our nation, as well as our increasing technological sophistication.  In this talk, I will discuss the application of physical principles to baseball as well as dynamical issues in pitching, hitting, fielding, and running.  In addition, the impact of weather and geography are considered.


Lecture by Professor Porter W. Johnson
Real Player Presentation
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August 26, 2013