January 6, 2021

Princeton Plasma Physics Features Science on Saturday, Starting Jan. 9

SCIENCE ON SATURDAY: Physicist Philip Moriarty brought his electric guitar for his lecture on “The Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal” in a Science on Saturday lecture in 2019. The popular Princeton Plasma Physics Lab lecture series kicks off its 2021 presentations online this Saturday, January 9, at 9:30 a.m. (Photo by Elle Starkman/ PPPL Office of Communications)

By Donald Gilpin

Stellarator fusion, chemistry and art, recognizing AI “snake oil,” studying the sun, searching for dark matter, and fighting COVID-19 are all on the agenda at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), as the Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday Lecture Series resumes on January 9 from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. on the Zoom virtual meeting platform.

“We have a wonderful lineup of outstanding scientists this year that you can view from your living room,” said PPPL Communications and Public Outreach Head Andrew Zwicker.  “After a challenging year when science moved front and center, we are very pleased to be able to announce the agenda for our fully remote lecture series.”

Emphasizing the importance of bringing community members together to talk about science, Zwicker continued, “The last year, with a global health crisis, has amplified the need for strong science communication. There have been discussions about mask wearing, about alternative treatments, and so the politics of science was amplified. It’s important to bring science in a way that young people and members of the general public can understand it.”

Leading off the series this Saturday will be “The Renaissance of the Stellarator Fusion Concept,” a lecture by PPPL physicist and head of advanced projects David Gates. Stellarators, a type of fusion energy facility that may be key to the future of energy, were invented by PPPL founder Lyman Spitzer in the 1950s. The twisty-coil stellarators, less popular for fusion experiments than donut-shaped tokamaks, have been making a comeback, Gates pointed out, with scientists recently finding new approaches to stellarator design.

“Stellarators can do fusion better if they work well, and we think we know how to make them work well,” Gates said in a phone interview. In his lecture he plans to review the history of fusion and contrast the stellarator and the tokamak.

“The stellarator fell out of favor because of the complexity of its 3-Dness relative to the tokamak,” he noted. “But Lyman Spitzer was always convinced that the 3-D system would be better because it had an inherent steady state, and I’m going to talk about why that is.”

Gates highlighted the value of the Science on Saturday series. “I can’t say enough nice things about it,” he said. “It’s a great series with good reviews from everyone. And it’s a great chance for us to show people the work we do —what science and the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab can do for the community.”

A 36-year tradition funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the lecture series attracts hundreds of viewers ranging from young students to senior citizens.

This year’s series of nine lectures will continue through March 13. 

Other highlights on upcoming Saturdays include a talk by Princeton University computer science professor Arvind Narayanan on “How to Recognize AI Snake Oil” on January 16; “Chemistry and Art: Like Dissolves Like. How Solubility Influences Creating and Restoring Art, Forgery, and Telling a Good Story,” presented by Rutgers University chemistry professor Geeta Govindarajoo on January 23; and a February 6 lecture on “Public Perception of Science: Lessons from a Dead Sheep.”

Questions for the speakers can be tweeted to @PPPLsSciEd or #scionsat. The talks will be posted online on the Science Education website at pppl.gov a few weeks after each presentation.

Deedee Ortiz, the PPPL science education program manager who organized the series, looks forward to a reunion with many familiar faces at Saturday’s lecture. “We have our regulars who have been attending for 35 years,” she said. “I’m very excited, and hopefully we’ll be able to see their faces on the screen because it really is like a family reunion every January. They keep coming. They‘re very gung-ho and loyal.”

Ortiz noted that she is particularly interested in an upcoming lecture on marine life by Kory Evans from Rice University. She anticipates that this year’s online format will attract an audience not just from Princeton, but from around the world.

“It’s very important for people to be science literate,” she said. “The lecturers take complex topics and bring them down to a level everyone can understand. It’s so important to understand science these days.”

Zwicker echoed those sentiments. “I’m thrilled that for more than 30 years now we’ve been doing this,” he said. “There is a need to make sure that advances in science are shared. These are advances that are changing people’s lives for the better.”

A link to the Zoom virtual meeting platform for Science on Saturday is on PPPL’s Science Education webpage at pppl.gov.