Public Lecture Archives


February 25: Joseph R. Dwyer

Weird Lightning: Sprites, Elves, and Other Strange Things Found in Our Atmosphere

Abstract: Lightning strikes our planet about a billion times per year, killing as many people as hurricanes or tornadoes. Surprisingly, despite its familiarity, we still don’t understand many things about lightning, including how it gets started inside thunderstorms and how it travels such large distances through air.  In addition, many new and strange phenomena have been discovered in and around thunderstorms, including colossal jellyfish-like structures near the edge of space called Sprites; enormous, expanding rings of light called Elves; bizarre, bluish jets shooting out of cloud tops; powerful flashes of gamma rays emanating from deep inside storms; and large but nearly invisible discharges called Dark Lightning. In this presentation, I will talk about the mysteries of lightning and other weird things that lightning does.


July 7: John Preskill

Quantum Computing and the Entanglement Frontier (Video)

Abstract:The quantum laws governing atoms and other tiny objects seem to defy common sense, and information encoded in quantum systems has weird properties that baffle our feeble human minds. John Preskill will explain why he loves quantum entanglement, the elusive feature making quantum information fundamentally different from information in the macroscopic world. By exploiting quantum entanglement, quantum computers should be able to solve otherwise intractable problems, with far-reaching applications to cryptology, materials, and fundamental physics science. Preskill is less weird than a quantum computer, and easier to understand.

John Preskill is the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology, and Director of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter at Caltech.


May 19: Chris Impey

Our Future Off-Earth (Video)

Abstract:  The Space Age is half a century old. Its early successes were driven by a fierce superpower rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, which tended to obscure the fact that exploration and risk-taking is built into human DNA. Decades after we last set foot on the Moon, and several years after the Space Shuttle was retired, the space activity is finally leaving the doldrums. A vibrant private sector led by SpaceX and Virgin Galactic plans to launch supplies cheaply into Earth orbit and give anyone the chance of a sub-orbital joy ride. New materials are being developed that could lead to space elevators and transform the economics of space travel. Fighting gravity will always be difficult but engineers are rethinking rockets and developing new propulsion technologies. Permanent bases on the Moon and Mars are now within reach, and a new space Race is brewing, with the Asian countries ascendant. Medical advances might even allow us to reach for the stars. The talk will review the history and landmarks of the international space program, give a snapshot of the current dynamic situation, and plot the trajectory of the future of space travel. The time has come to envision our future off-Earth.