Seminar on Science and Society

I offer a 10-part seminar on science for non-scientists.  For example, a group might meet for two hours on four successive Saturday mornings to cover 8 of the parts.  All sessions  are conversational, with a mid-session break.  I usually present a single session on one or two topics chosen by the participants.

This conversational seminar is designed for non-scientists—those who might or might not have had a biology, chemistry, and/or physics course in high school, or perhaps an introductory course in college.  This is NOT a technical lecture.  There is no homework.  We will introduce fundamental ideas of physical science and examine their impacts on modern living.  If you cringe at mathematics, be assured that you won’t have to “do” it, but you might come to feel empowered regarding it—and hopefully also empowered regarding the science babble that appears in the news media.

I have given this seminar (in various forms) in Los Alamos NM, at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, in Redwood City CA and four times at Sequoias Portola Valley (SPV).  To permit dialog, I prefer to work with a group of five to fifteen participants.  I will address a larger audience, although the presentation might then seem more like a lecture than a conversation.

An outline of topics in the seminar appears below.  Depending on our discussions, we can probably visit 7 or 8 topics in four sessions.  A full seminar might include Topics 1-4 and Topic 10, allowing the participants to choose two topics from among the five electives listed with an asterisk (*).  One set of  participants requested a fifth session to cover two additional elective topics.

To propose a seminar:
Notify me by email [email protected] .
Tell me the nature of your group, and whether you are interested in a single topic or several sessions.  Also, please tell me how you would propose to enroll your group and why they might be interested in the topics.  The outline is flexible, and can change depending on the interests of the participants.  For example, while I was presenting the nature of electrical charges, some senior members said, “Oh, we wanted to know what the little labels saying 110V appliances mean.”  The rest of the group concurred, and we immediately shifted to the subject to household wiring and how electrical appliances work.


If we have weekly sessions, participants will receive a reminder by email each week.  I understand that unplanned family and professional events arise, but I ask that participants agree to attend the full set of scheduled sessions except for emergencies.  I have found that, although one session might not appeal to an individual’s tastes, interest can grow as the larger picture of science and society emerges.


SUGGESTED OUTLINE  (* indicates electives)

Session I
1. Structure of science:  Distinguish science.  Mechanics, gravity,, mathematics.  What is a theory?

2. Electricity:  amps & volts, AC/DC, light and heat and radio.

Session II
3. Structure of matter:  atoms, molecules, crystals.  Why can you distinguish a metal from a ceramic?

4. Thermodynamics and climate:  why a warm house can feel cold; what is temperature; understanding the arguments about climate.

Session III  (Electives, choose two)
5.* Einstein’s relativity:  You, yourself will show how time and space are warped.  A mind-bending exercise.

6.* Nuclear radiation: fission & fusion, reactors, bombs, wastes and how some of the fear is misplaced.

7.* Quantum mechanics: colors, interference, particles, waves, and why Einstein said entanglement is “spooky.”

8.* Dry land hydrology:  The hydrologic cycle; water in the apparently dry soil of your garden.

9.* Numbers:  How computers speak English while doing arithmetic.

Session IV  (most important)
10. Complex systems: How emergence, society, regulation, feedback, traffic jams, fish, birds, weather, and urban disasters are all related.