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Public science lecture series celebrates 50th anniversary.

By Jim DeGooyer, major gifts officer, College of Science and Paul Gabrielsen, senior science writer, University Marketing and Communications

In 2017 the University of Utah College of Science celebrates the 50-year anniversary of the Frontiers of Science (FOS) lecture series. Frontiers of Science, free and open to the public, is the longest running lecture series in the history of the University of Utah.

Speakers during the 2016–2017 anniversary year present on a diverse range of topics including climate change, evolution, and the global energy crisis.

“We are proud to offer an exceptional opportunity for people to share in the most important scientific questions and problems of our time,” says Henry S. White, dean of the College of Science. “One can only imagine what the next 50 years will have in store.”

The Next Frontier

In the next lecture on Jan. 19, Siegfried Hecker of the Center for International Security Cooperation at Stanford University presents a lecture titled “North Korean Nukes: What, How and Why?” Hecker is a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He is the author of Doomed to Cooperate, an account of post-Cold War scientific cooperation to safeguard Russia’s stockpile of nuclear material, a process Hecker has participated in for the past 25 years.

North Korea kicked off 2017 with a declaration that the secretive nation was nearing the capability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, following several nuclear tests and advances in nuclear technology. Hecker first traveled to North Korea in 2004 to inspect the nation’s nuclear facilities and has returned many times, reporting on his experiences and observations. In his talk, Hecker will describe the history of North Korea’s nuclear program and how the nation acquired its current capabilities, comparing its program to Iran’s and charting the path to address the threat of rogue nuclear nations.

A Brief History

Frontiers of Science was established in 1967 by physics professor Peter Gibbs and other members of the physics faculty at the U. Gibbs and his colleagues sought to bring notable researchers from around the country to the University to discuss the current “frontiers” in physics research. The larger goal was to present public lectures that would attract attention to important developments in scientific research.

The first Frontiers event was presented by Peter Gibbs himself, who discussed “Einstein the Sociologist,” on April 1, 1967. Physics Professors David C. Evans, Grant R. Fowles and Jack W. Keuffel presented the remaining three lectures that year.

Gibbs and colleagues soon made good on their promise to bring exceptional scientists to campus. During the 1968-69 academic year, eight lectures were held, including talks from C.N. Yang of the University of New York at Stony Brook (“Symmetry Principles in Physics”) and Murray Gell-Mann of the California Institute of Technology (“Elementary Particles.”) Nobel laureates gave three of the eight presentations that academic year. Overall, six of the thirteen lectures in 1969 were given by Nobel laureates. Topics included astronomy, mathematics, anthropology, politics and social issues.

Gibbs and the early FOS organizers were extremely adept at recruiting famous and soon-to-be-famous scientists. They also were keenly aware of the state of scientific research and the social climate of the time. President Nixon was in office, the Vietnam War was escalating and student protests were common on university campuses including the U of U. The United States had just put a man on the moon. Personal computers did not exist.

Through the 1970s as many as ten lectures were presented each academic year, but by 1980 the pace had slowed to a more manageable five or six per year. The FOS series had become immensely popular and the topics were broadened to include biology, chemistry, mathematics and the earth sciences.

In the early 1980s, FOS audiences were treated to firsthand accounts of the discovery of the structure of DNA by James D. Watson (“The Double Helix and Destiny,” 1981) and Francis H.C. Crick (“The Two DNA Revolutions,” 1984), the achievement for which they had received a Nobel Prize in 1962.

Many FOS speakers were not yet widely known when they spoke at the U, but became so later. For example, F. Sherwood Rowland spoke on “Man’s Threat to Stratospheric Ozone” in the 1978 academic year, and was a co-recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering studies on the destruction of ozone by chlorofluorocarbons – precisely his topic in 1978.

After utilizing a number of venues across campus, FOS found a permanent home in 1997 in the lecture auditorium of the newly completed Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology Research Building.

In 2003, the College of Mines and Earth Sciences joined with the College of Science to co-host FOS and increase the number of lectures devoted to aspects of geology, geophysics and meteorology. Added speakers included Paul F. Hoffman of Harvard University (“Snowball Earth: Testing the Limits of Global Climate Change,” 2003) and Peter B. deMenocal of Columbia University (“Climate Shifts and the Collapse of Ancient Cultures,” 2004).

In March 2007, Professor Kerry A. Emanuel of MIT discussed the history and science of hurricanes, including how climate change may be influencing storm cycles around the world. He used stunning photos and graphics to explain how hurricanes work, what determines their energy and destructiveness, and the economic and social implications of our policies for dealing with the risks they pose.

In 2008, The 14th Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, Sir Arnold Wolfendale, graced Utah audiences with a superb presentation on “Time: From Harrison’s Clocks to the Possibility of New Physics.” Other international guests included Dr. Jennifer Graves of La Trobe University, Australia, and Dr. Stefan Hell, Nobel laureate and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany.

The Frontiers of Science lecture series is sponsored by the University of Utah College of Science and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences. Visit our website at for more information.

Upcoming Frontiers of Science lectures

Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017
Siegfried S. Hecker, Stanford University
“North Korean Nukes: What, How and Why”

Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017
Cagan Sekercioglu, University of Utah
“Why Birds Matter: Conserving the World’s Birds and Their Ecosystem Services”

Thursday, March 30, 2017
Daniel G. Nocera, Harvard University
“The Global Energy Challenge: A Moral Imperative for the University”

Thursday, April 20, 2017
Frank H. Brown, University of Utah
“The Omo-Turkana Basin, East Africa: A Treasury of History”

Lectures begin at 6 p.m. in room 220, Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology Research Building.

Free and open to the public.

*Main photo credit: Stanford University