Matt Stanley "From Physics to Prophesy: Learning to Predict the Scientific Apocalypse"

Abstract/Description: Audio of public lectures from 2016 Lyne Starling Trimble Science Heritage Public Lectures. This talk is from September 13, 2016 by Matt Stanley "From Physics to Prophecy: Learning to Predict the Scientific Apocalypse." Generally, we don’t think much of end-time prophets. A seemingly endless series of failed apocalyptic predictions have made the practice seem ridiculous. But scientists now find themselves in that very role as they warn of global threats from environmental destruction to Ebola epidemics. Scientists are (whether they like it or not) following in the footsteps of generations of prophets. We are left with a difficult puzzle. How can scientists make apocalypticism reputable? The two decades following the discovery of the K-T extinction witnessed increasing numbers of scientific predictions of the end of the world, and those stories can help us understand the challenge of turning physicists into prophets. Carl Sagan embraced this apocalyptic role when cautioning about nuclear winter, and was quite effective in mobilizing popular and political support. But this came at the cost of his standing in the scientific community. Around the same time, astronomers and physicists attempting to warn of the danger of asteroid impacts tried to avoid Sagan’s prophetic mantle, and instead persuade largely through scientific channels. They were largely unsuccessful, and particularly struggled with how to do this in a new age of 24-hour news and the Internet. The story of these modern apocalypses can help us examine the deeper problem of the best ways to communicate scientific knowledge to broader audiences.
Subject(s): Stanley, Matthew, 1975-
American Institute of Physics. Center for History of Physics
Date Issued: 2016