Those looking for a little science, stimulating conversation, or a place to take a child interested in science should head to the Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday Lecture Series at Plasma Princeton Physics Lab on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro.
The popular weekly event regularly attracts an audience ranging from students to seniors.
The series is named for the late PPPL engineer who spent a decade organizing the original series and served as its unofficial master of ceremonies.
It has been taking place for decades. “It started in 1984 with four lectures and a total of a few hundred people showing up, and (in 2020) we have nine lectures and expect somewhere on the order of 3,000 people before the end of the lecture series,” says Andrew Zwicker.
PPPL’s communications and outreach director and a New Jersey assemblyman, Zwicker oversees all internal and external communications as well as educational programs.
Deedee Ortiz, the science education program manager and series organizer, says she looks forward each year to seeing the “regulars” who have been coming to the lectures for decades. “It’s really like a family reunion,” she says.
The reunion includes people from the ages of four to 94. “We’ve had little kids who ended up interning here for our high school internship program,” Ortiz says.
At a recent event attendee Tim Young from Princeton Junction says he’s been coming to these lectures for the past 10 or 15 years. The retired bank auditor found out about them from a newspaper and friends suggested he go because of his interest in science.
“What topped it off is they said, ‘Come on over get a bagel or a cup of coffee.’ That’s all I needed. The lectures have been very interesting,” Young says.
The first 2020 lecture, in January, was “Visual Perception: The Art of the Brain,” presented by Sabine Kastner.
A Princeton neuroscience professor who studies visual perception, she showed optical illusions and paintings and asked the audience members to describe what they see. With the use of human brain model, she pointed out relevant areas to explain why humans see things the way we do and what causes different people to see the same thing differently.
With the lecture hall filled by 9:25 a.m. and all of the 300 3-D glasses Kastner provided claimed, late arrivers watched the lecture on a screen in the cafeteria.
First time attendee Daniel Kurz says he found out about the lecture from his wife, who saw it posted online. “One of the reasons we moved to the Princeton area is because there’s an abundance of free lectures, cultural activities, and all kinds of interesting things going on,” says the professor of social science and history at Middlesex County College.
Kurz attended with his son, Anthony, who says, “I’m largely interested in physics, so I guess this is the perfect place for that. And I like learning in general, but I’m more a fan of the sciences, chemistry, physics, and biology more than other subjects.”
The South Brunswick High School sophomore says he’d like to pursue a career in science. “Maybe laboratory physics would hopefully be the goal and maybe even physics education,” he said.
“I think it’s really wonderful that the university and the plasma lab have these public events to get people excited about science and to connect the community to their work,” says his father.
In addition to the lecture series, PPPL is unique within Princeton University because it is overseen and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The lab works to develop fusion as a clean and abundant source of energy and to advance plasma science. Fusion is the reaction that powers the sun and stars. It takes place when the atomic nuclei — or ions — in hot, electrically charged plasma fuse and release a burst of energy.
PPPL studies how to recreate this process in the laboratory by heating plasma to tens of millions of degrees Celsius and confining it in powerful magnetic fields.
The laboratory, located off Route 1, does experiments and computer simulations of the behavior of plasma, the hot electrically charged gas that fuels fusion reactions and has a wide range of practical applications.
PPPL also stands out for its commitment to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and has an entire department devoted to science education.
Programming includes public tours of the lab and events that expose the public to the beauty and excitement of science, fusion, and plasmas.
PPPL runs dozens of educational programs for kindergarten through college-aged students.
That includes hosting the annual New Jersey Regional Science Bowl that, as PPPL materials say, is a double-elimination contest with question-and-answer rounds in the fields of chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and general and earth sciences. Teams from middle, high, and home schools are invited to enter. The top team from each regional competition wins an expenses-paid trip to the national competition in Washington, D.C.; trophies are awarded to the top three teams.
There are also several different types of college internships, including a summer internship specifically for community college students and an internship program for high school students.
And for middle and high school-aged girls, there is the Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics that introduces students to regional women scientists and engineers and related fields. The conference also includes small-group presentations, hands-on activities, talks, and a laboratory tour.
“I’m fortunate enough to have an amazing team of science educators who create workshops and enrichment opportunities and research internships for students from all backgrounds. And they come to this laboratory for weeks at a time to do original research. And hopefully that gives them the spark that will send them off into a career in science or engineering,” Zwicker says.
The lectures continue through March 14 as follows:
February 8: Matthew Kleban, New York University, presents “The Cosmic Multiverse: Science or Fantasy?”
February 15: Sigrid Adrianssens, Princeton University, “Form Follows Force — Extreme Structures for a Resilient Urban Environment.”
February 22: Department of Energy NJ Regional Science Bowl — No Science on Saturday
February 29: Luju Ojha, Rutgers University, “50 years of Mars Exploration: What have we learned?”
March 7: Asa Rennermalm, Rutgers University, “Witnessing Climate Change: What I have Learned from My Expeditions to the Greenland Ice Sheet.”
March 14: Arvind Narayanan, Princeton University, TBA.
Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday Lecture Series, 100 Stellarator Road, Plainsboro, free. Doors open at 8:15 a.m. with coffee and light refreshments for early birds. The lectures begin at 9:30 a.m. No registration is required; however, a valid government-issued, photo ID is necessary to gain access to the Laboratory for anyone over 18 years of age. The lectures can also be streamed live from home at mediacentral.princeton.edu/id/1_wdp1m3et. You can view archives of the lectures at www.pppl.gov/sos-listing. For more information, visit: www.pppl.gov.