'Catalysts of Change' is Theme of Arizona Science Lecture Series


The University of Arizona College of Science's annual lecture series will mark its 15th year in 2020 with a series of presentations that provide insight into how the scientific advances are changing the future of life as we know it. The four-week series kicks off Feb. 4 and is themed "Catalysts of Change."

Our world continues to change, with some aspects of our lives changing more rapidly than others. The Arizona Science Lecture Series will explore the catalysts – both positive and negative – influencing the pace of change in four areas of science: climate, space, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. Advances in our understanding of those topics will have profound implications for how humans will live in the next 20 years and beyond.

"Entering the 15th year of the successful Arizona Science Lecture Series is a testament to our esteemed and dynamic faculty and our amazing community, which is interested in topics such as cosmology, neuroscience, evolution, life science and climate change," said Elliott Cheu, interim dean of the College of Science. "The interest in continued learning within the Tucson community has made this lecture series truly a landmark event for the university."

The free lectures will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays – Feb. 4, Feb. 18, Feb. 25, March 3 – at Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. Parking is available for a fee in the Tyndall Avenue Garage, 880 E. Fourth Street.

Each lecture will be livestreamed by Arizona Public Media and will be available as a podcast or video on iTunes U, YouTube and Arizona Public Media approximately one week after the lecture date.

"In 2006 the College of Science launched its first free public lecture series titled 'Evolution.' Now, in 2020, the series continues to be thought-provoking and cross-collaborative with researchers and faculty from across the disciplines," said Joaquin Ruiz, vice president of global environmental futures. "I look forward to seeing the lecture series continue to push boundaries and share important scientific research with our community."

The following lectures will be presented:

Feb. 4: Life Beyond Earth
Chris Impey, University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy, College of Science
Betül Kaçar, assistant professor, Departments of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Astronomy, College of Science
After four billion years of life on Earth, one species is altering the planet to make it less habitable. That same species is also poised to leave the planet and live on other worlds. As we contemplate life off Earth, we're also making rapid progress in our search for life beyond Earth. The lecture will look at the trajectory of life on Earth and what our planet can tell us about the likelihood of life on the many exoplanets that are being discovered. It will address the most profound questions we can ask about our place in the universe, including, are we alone? The search for life beyond Earth will inform how we live on this planet. As T.S. Eliot wrote: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

Feb. 18: Our Rapidly Changing Biosphere
Brian Enquist, professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, College of Science
Rachel Gallery, associate professor and associate director, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
What does the future hold for the biodiversity of our planet, and why should we care? Ecosystems connect the biosphere's living and physical components through the flow of energy and the cycling of nutrients, and ecosystems sustain society. However, the biosphere is now rapidly changing. In this talk, we will travel from lowland tropical rainforests to alpine wetlands to highlight the importance of biodiversity in ecosystems. From the diversity and complexity of microscopic life in soils to the diversity of ecosystems along climate gradients, we will show why biodiversity is changing across scales and why this matters. Throughout, we emphasize the factors that promote and maintain biodiversity, as well as why change in the biosphere is accelerating. Many questions remain: What is the future of the biosphere and biodiversity on an increasingly human-dominated planet? And how much time do we have left to promote a sustainable Earth?

Feb. 25: The Promise and Peril of Artificial Intelligence
Stephen Kobourov, professor of computer science, College of Science
Carlos Scheidegger, assistant professor of computer science, College of Science
The word robot is 100 years old, but only recently has artificial intelligence, or AI, begun to make real-life impact, from Apple's Siri to Uber's self-driving cars. Rapid advances in machine learning have renewed the idea of modeling how the human brain works by building deep neural networks that learn how to solve problems with the help of many examples. Like other revolutions, AI comes with great promise: better medical diagnoses, more efficient transportation, and personalized recommendations from shopping and music to fitness routines. There's also peril, since AI enables mass surveillance and manipulation, and perpetuates societal biases. There are technological challenges – deep neural networks can solve only narrow problems, are not robust, and do not generalize how we expect them to – but a truly humane, AI-enabled future will require much more than just technologists. We must work with ethicists, policy-makers, and particularly the people who will be affected by these systems.

March 3: Our World Is Changing Faster Than We Are
Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer; Mars Advanced Research Institute Fellow, Mars Inc.; senior fellow of plant sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of California, Davis; distinguished fellow, The World Agroforestry Centre; Rockefeller Foundation advisor
Society faces enormous challenges to feed the future population, heal us from known and unknown diseases, and find those solutions quickly. The question becomes: What scientific tools do we have that enable resilient solutions to those problems? The world of science is international; today we need collaborations yielding discovery, translation and scale to those issues. Unconventional ideas and unconventional solutions are mandated more than ever before. As we study the complexity of biological systems, strategy, not tactics, and determined innovation give hope for the future.

Funding for the 2020 lecture series is provided by its presenting sponsor Tucson Electric Power and its underwriters: Arizona Daily Star, Holualoa Companies, Marshall Foundation, Raytheon, Tucson Medical Center, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the University of Arizona Research Innovation & Impact, and Visit Tucson.

Additional information is available on the Arizona Science Lecture Series website.