Upgrading the Public Lecture Experience

Apologies for the extended radio silence here at the blog. (Originally typed “radio science,” which I suppose is an encouraging sign from my subconscious.) My time and attention has been taken up by an interesting phenomenon known as “real work.” I have four papers in almost-submittable rough draft form, another three projects bubbling along nicely, and one project in the “this result can’t be right because if it is right it would be really interesting and important and that never happens but hey you never know” stage. Feels good to be concentrating on research after a year with too much book writing, traveling, workshop organizing, etc.

Speaking of traveling, I spent last week in Australia, partly in Sydney and partly in Canberra. This trip owed its existence to two fortunate facts. First, back in graduate school my officemate was Brian Schmidt, who has since become an influential astronomer living in Australia (oh, and won the Nobel Prize for a little thing called the acceleration of the universe). Second, Brian and I like to make bets with each other, which I always win. (At least as of the current moment, with n=2.)

Our first bet, made back in grad school, was whether we would someday have a reliable measurement of Omega, the cosmological density parameter. We purchased a small bottle of vintage port and agreed that Brian would collect it if we didn’t have an agreed-upon value within 20 years, while I would collect it if we did. You have to remember that back in early 90’s, astronomers kept measuring numbers that implied the universe was open, while theorists kept insisting that it must be spatially flat on naturalness grounds. The controversy was largely ended by the discovery of cosmic acceleration, showing that both camps were right: astronomers had correctly measured the density of matter, but universe is essentially flat, the remainder being taken up by dark energy. Brian graciously conceded, but I’m sure King Carl Gustav consoled him on his defeat.

vineyard In 2009 Brian foolishly challenged me again, this time on whether physicists would eventually discover the Higgs boson at the LHC. His job is to play the curmudgeonly experimentalist, while I am the ever-optimistic theorist — so in July 2012, when CERN announced a new particle, Brian found himself once again in the role of gracious conceder. We’re all grown up by now, so the stakes were a bit larger: Brian donated some of his impressive store of frequent flyer miles to fly Jennifer and me to Australia, where I would give some talks. We had a great time, needless to say, including a visit to the vineyard where Brian makes his celebrated Maipenrai Pinot Noir. (Yes you read that correctly. He’s an energetic guy.)

But the real lesson I learned from the whole trip is: with a tiny amount of effort, it’s possible to turn the ordinary public lecture experience into something much more fun for the audience. (Not that a good public lecture isn’t already fun.) Admittedly, it helps to have a Nobel laureate involved and an amusing story to tell, which can get a fairly un-noteworthy event boosted up to front page news in the local paper. But Brian, who is strongly dedicated to using his notoriety for good, had the idea of inaugurating a lecture series that would go beyond the usual hour-lecture-and-a-few-questions routine.

So my Canberra public lecture was a bit out of the ordinary. For one thing, they actually sold tickets ahead of time, albeit for a nominal six bucks. For another, there was cocktail time before the talk itself — every attendee got a free glass of wine. The wine works out to about six bucks per person for the organizers, so it was financially a wash, but buying a ticket makes the attendee feel a little more invested in the event than deciding at the last minute to show up and just walk in.

partygravy As the audience mixed and mingled with their wine in hand, there was a band playing by the venue entrance — Party Gravy, a local Dixieland troupe. They also played onstage as Brian came up to introduce the event, and again at the end as everyone filed out. A small touch, but enough to help change the vibe from “lecture” to “event.”

Finally, the talk itself was slightly altered from the conventional format. Brian didn’t introduce me directly, but instead welcomed Adam Shirley, a local radio announcer, who served as MC for the evening. Adam introduced me, after which I gave a shorter version of the usual talk — it was supposed to be half an hour, but I think I went 40 minutes (the Higgs will not be contained!). After that, Adam and I sat down together on stage, and he orchestrated an interview that was partly his own questions, partly questions from the audience, and partly questions from Twitter. A small change from a more typical Q&A, perhaps, but just enough to change up the tempo of the evening and keep everything fresh.

As far as I could tell, the whole thing was a smashing success from the audience’s point of view. It felt more exciting and eventful than would a minimalist lecture+Q&A. It takes a tiny bit of additional effort to organize something like this, but I highly recommend it to anyone who is in charge of a lecture/event series. Not necessarily this exact format, but the basic idea of jazzing things up and keeping people engaged. The science itself is endlessly fascinating, it’s up to us to do it justice.

Now Brian and I just have to come up with a topic for our next bet (for me to win). We discovered, sadly, that we agree on too much these days. Surely there is some looming question in science that we disagree about and that will be settled before too long?

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16 Responses to Upgrading the Public Lecture Experience

  1. Zerub says:

    Sean, looks like you quite enjoy betting (and winning). I was watching the Philosophy of Cosmology Conference (2009), you had a bet with Max Tegmark on the Plank finding something.. did you win that too?! 😛

  2. Sean Carroll says:

    Not yet, since Planck hasn’t released polarization results. Just a matter of time!

  3. M. Vogel says:

    Will you post links for your papers once they’re published? I’d be very interested in reading them.

  4. Lab Lemming says:

    It is worth pointing out to international readers that Adam Spencer is not local to Canberra, and is one of Australis’s better known TV and radio science promoters.

  5. Cmdr. Awesome says:

    I’d love to see more public lectures of this nature – bringing entertainment and science together is a great way to highlight the importance of what researchers do day in and day out, while keeping the audience entertained. Not to say that a great speaker can’t keep an audience entertained by her/himself, but a little zinfandel can go a long way to easing any social situation!

  6. Esben Bregnballe says:

    I love the “this result can’t be right because if it is right it would be really interesting and important and that never happens but hey you never know” stage.

  7. Brett says:

    looks like I’ve got a new wine to try. I’ll let you know what I think about his pinot noir when I give my opinion on locality vs. superluminal communication in response to a future blog post about polo shirts vs. jackets & ties.

  8. Perhaps Brian and you would like to make a bet based on one or more conjectures/results from my attempted research. For example, how about betting on whether at least one of observational physics or experimental physics determines (perhaps, by a specific date) whether there is an (m_1)^2 * (m_2)^2 / r^4 repulsive force between objects? Here m_n is the mass of object n and r characterizes the distance between “centers” of the objects. My attempted work points to a possible zero-mass boson (I designate it as 3e3) that would carry that force. An attempted calculation estimates that the force might be provide more repulsion between neighboring astrophysical objects of (linear) sizes greater than ~~10^(10.5) light years (or ~~10^4 Mpc) than gravity provides attraction. If so, this force could be responsible for the increase (after redshift 0.5) in rate of expansion of the universe (and partly responsible for Brian’s Nobel Prize). I also provide an estimate for the size of the 3e3-force between 2 electrons.

    To the extent my attempted research is useful, some other results (perhaps bases for bets) are [a] that the dark-matter and dark-energy contributions to the density of the universe are based on “stuff” that is much like baryonic-matter stuff; [b] that the actual ratios (not observed ratios) are likely 1:5:18 (BM:DM:DE); and [c] that the decrease in the rate of expansion (2.3 > z > 0.7) is an effect of the zero-mass boson I designate as 2e2. (Photons are designated as 4e4. Gravitons would be 4e3.)

    To look for further bases for bets (or possibly useful physics), I invite people to see the “extract” (summary of results of the research) available via a link near the bottom of http://thomasjbuckholtz.wordpress.com/mathematical-physics-2/ .

    If you do come up with a new bet, please let people know.

  9. Brian Schmidt says:

    Lab Lemming: Sean has a small factual error, it was Adam Shirley http://www.abc.net.au/profiles/content/s2626197.htm who did the gig in Canberra, not Adam Spencer – I did talk to Adam Spencer in the morning to push his already sold out talk in Sydney

  10. Sean Carroll says:

    Arrgh, I made the Spencer/Shirley mistake about ten times while I was there. Will fix.

  11. James Gallagher says:

    What’s the “this result can’t be right […] but you never know” project about?

    Maybe just the mention the rough area if you don’t want to be specific: Quantum Foundtations, Particle Physics, General Realtivity, Cosmology, Quantum Gravity?

    Or have you found an elementary proof of the abc conjecture? In which case, it probably isn’t right 🙂

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  13. MKS says:


    nice piccy with you and Brian there

  14. Razieh says:

    Hi Prof. Sean Carroll,

    I am a PhD student of cosmology and I have just seen your very nice weblog.

    I have a question about the Planck results which is related to the different types of the CMB anomallies. It seems that, Planck results proved their existence but I am not quite sure whether they have been related into the Anisotropic Inflation , preferred direction, as well. More specifically as in your formula ,P = P_{0} (1+ g_{*} (n.k)^2).
    If this is the case, would you please explain it to me, if possible.

  15. Hien Nguyen says:

    How about this bet.

    A bottle of Syrah. That dark matter will not be found within your – either Sean’s or Brian’s, whosever ends later – lifetime.

    If it did, Sean wins. If not, Brian wins. I leave it to you to figure out how to pay/collect the bet.


  16. Tony Mach says:

    The “front page news” you linked to has a photos showing Brian Schmidt wearing an interesting T-shirt. Is there a better photo or can someone explain what the T-shirt shows?