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College of Arts & Sciences
Physics and Astronomy

Distinguished Lectures Bring the Big Picture to Columbia

Esteemed physicists discuss the history and fate of the universe in public lectures at USC.

The fields of physics and astronomy have always provided fertile ground for the great luminaries of modern science.  Ask anyone to name the most famous scientists in history and, invariably, you will get a list full of physicists and astronomers:  Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Isaac Newton.  This remains true today, as advances in physics dominate the scientific headlines in the popular media, from the Higgs boson to gravitational waves to extrasolar planets.  The faculty of the USC Physics and Astronomy department are closely connected with many esteemed researchers who are leading these world-changing advances and communicating their results to the public.  This year our department launched a new “Distinguished Lecture Series” to bring such renowned scholars to the Columbia campus.

In January of 2017, astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Dr. Adam Riess visited for the second installment of the series.  Dr. Riess is currently the Thomas J. Barber Professor in Space Studies at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University as well as a distinguished astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute.  He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received numerous other awards such as the Shaw Prize, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, and the Albert Einstein Medal.

Dr. Riess’ public lecture, “Supernovae and the Discovery of the Accelerating Universe,” discussed the origins of an expanding universe first discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1929 leading up to a deeper understanding of dark energy’s nature, which remains one of the greatest challenges in both astrophysics and cosmology.  In his special colloquium entitled “Expansion of the Universe Seen by Hubble,” Dr. Riess described the present uncertainties in the cosmological model and also elaborated on a new round of improvements to the measurement of the Hubble constant developed through his own personal research.

Our first distinguished lecturer, visiting in September 2016, was Dr. Mario Livio — an internationally renowned best-selling author, popular speaker, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  From 1991 to 2015, he served as an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which manages science operations for the famous Hubble Space Telescope.  Dr. Livio’s most well-known books for general audiences include The Golden Ratio (2002), Is God a Mathematician? (2009), and Brilliant Blunders (2013).

In his special colloquium, “Our Place in the Cosmos,” Dr. Livio reviewed the status of the physical existence of life on Earth in view of the latest findings in astronomy, cosmology, and particle physics.  He also shared some philosophical considerations concerning the importance of human intelligence in the grand cosmic scheme.  The following evening, Dr. Livio presented a public lecture, “Brilliant Blunders,” which was primarily based on his best-selling book.  In this presentation, Dr. Livio focused on a number of significant errors committed by luminaries such as Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, and Albert Einstein.  One of his objectives was to scrutinize various blunders throughout past centuries and attempt to identify their causes — arguing that blunders are both inevitable and contribute to the natural progression of scientific thought.

Each speaker in this series presents both a colloquium for the University community and a public lecture targeted toward general audiences.  The public lecture and special colloquium events drew a tremendous crowd, with two to three hundred participants at each public lecture and over one hundred in attendance at each colloquium.  Guests traveled from as far as Clemson, Charlotte, Charleston, and Augusta to participate in this series, and the responses from attendees have been extremely positive.  Survey feedback and comments showed great appreciation for these events.  Many respondents noted that a great benefit of residing near Columbia is the availability of free public lectures such as these at the University of South Carolina.

During their visits, Dr. Livio and Dr. Riess enjoyed luncheons with undergraduate students in the South Carolina Honors College, tours of the USC campus and surroundings, and informal meetings with USC administrators.  Both speakers also joined for special focused discussions with students in the Physics and Astronomy program at USC.  These students had an opportunity for a deeper look at the current research of our guests, and a chance for casual conversations about the motivations, surprises, and challenges of a distinguished career in astrophysics.

In the first year, funding for this series was provided by the Office of the Provost and the Vice President for Research, with additional assistance from the College of Arts & Sciences and the USC Honors College.  Dr. Livio’s visit in Fall 2016 also featured a book signing, sponsored by the USC Bookstore and Barnes & Noble College.  The effort to establish this lecture series was led by Dr. Steven Rodney, with primary support from Department Chair Dr. Milind Purohit and Dr. Varsha Kulkarni.  Event coordinator Sam Beals managed the event planning and organized a broad media campaign to promote the series on campus and across the region.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy would like to extend our sincerest appreciation to all who helped develop, promote, and support these lectures.  We hope to see you at future events!  Feel free to visit our website at for further details on upcoming lectures.

Please visit the daily "UofSC Today" feature articles for both speakers below!

Dr. Mario Livio "UofSC Today" Feature Article

Dr. Adam Riess "UofSC Today" Feature Article