February 6, 2019

PPPL Saturday Science Talks Have Loyal Fans of All Ages

SCIENCE FOR EVERYBODY: At the January 19 Science on Saturdays lecture at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL), the topic was “Magnetic Universe.” PPPL Director Professor Steve Cowley and Science Education Physicist Dr. Arturo Dominguez had assistance from a youthful member of the audience. (Photo by Elle Starkman)

By Anne Levin

At the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturdays Lecture Series, audience members might be as young as 9 and as old as 90. The popular talks on a range of scientific subjects have been attracting people curious about all aspects of science for more than three decades.

“The fact that we average nearly 300 a lecture is a testament to the community,” said Andrew Zwicker, who heads PPPL’s communications and public outreach (and is also a Democratic assemblyman for the 16th district). “Last year a gentleman celebrated his 90th birthday at one of the lectures. And we have a physician who gave a lecture  a week and a half ago on the science of joint replacement (Dr. Christina Gutowski of Cooper University Healthcare), who went to Science on Saturday when she was a little girl.”

PPPL is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory managed by Princeton University. The lecture series was started 34 years ago by PPPL physicists. “They wanted to have representatives from all branches of science, who are at the cutting-edge of research, present their results to the interested public,” said Zwicker. “They started with just a couple of lectures, and now there are nine every year, on Saturday mornings. They are very popular.”

The program is named for Hatcher, an engineer who hosted the lectures in the past and died in 2014. It is funded by the DOE’s Office of Science. All talks are free.

Making complicated scientific issues understandable to those unfamiliar with complex concepts doesn’t seem to be a problem. “It’s an interesting challenge to present your results to such a wide audience,” said Zwicker. “Because we have everyone from retired scientists to interested kids to members of the general public. There are sections of lectures, very short, that are very technical. But this is not like giving a colloquium at a university to your peers.”

The next lecture is this Saturday, February 9, when Rutgers University Professor Juliane Gross tackles “Planetary Science at the Coldest Place on Earth: The Antarctic Search for Meteorites.” On February 16, PPPL physicist Fatima Ebrahimi will speak on “Magnetic Explosions: From Space Plasmas to Fusion Energy.”

Later topics are “Managing Coastal Risk in an Age of Sea-level Rise” by Rutgers Professor Robert Kopp on March 2; “Tracking Water Around the Globe — in the Atmosphere — Surface and Subsurface” by University of Illinois Associate Professor Francina Dominguez on March 9; and “How Deep are Plant Roots? Take a Guess” by Rutgers Professor Ying Reinfelder on March 16.

“There is an image that science is for nerds, or is so complicated,” said Zwicker, who is a physicist. “But we live in a time when science and advances are about things that are so relatable — like should we fund the next cure for cancer, or are vaccines good or bad, or where does the universe come from. These lectures give the general public an opportunity to hear from scientists themselves, which is critical because we are inundated with information. I think it’s an incredible way to break down that wall and remove the hesitation. I love it.”

Talks, which begin at 9:30 a.m., are held in the Lyman Spitzer Building, 100 Stellarator Road. Visitors are advised to arrive at least an hour early to get a seat. Coffee and bagels are served. Lectures can also be viewed live at www.pppl.gov/node/7641.