Philosophical Society of Washington

Managing the Planet

Hard Science and Hard Choices

James Trefil
Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Physics, George Mason University

2182nd Meeting Abstract
Friday, November 5, 2004 at 8:15 PM


There are developments going on in the science right now that will, in a matter of decades, change forever the relationship between human beings and nature. In this talk we will examine how we have come to this state of affairs by asking two questions: (1) how did nature get to be the way it is, and (2) how did humans get to be the way they are? It will be argued that starting about 10,000 years ago humans began to remove themselves from nature with the development of agriculture, and that this separation has intensified to the present day. Soon, however, developments in experimental ecology, genomics, and complexity theory will return humans to nature, not as participants, but as managers. We will close by looking at some of the principles that have been proposed for managing Planet Earth.

About the Author:

James Trefil was born in Chicago and educated in the public schools. After receiving a B.S. in physics from the University of Illinois, he won a Marshall scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied physics and the philosophy of science and received the B.A. and M.A. degrees. He finished his studies as a National Science Foundation Fellow at Stanford University, where he received an M.S. and Ph.D. in theoretical physics.

He held postdoctoral, visiting, and junior faculty appointments at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), Laboratory for Nuclear Sciences at MIT, German Electron Synchrotron Laboratory (Hamburg), University of Illinois, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory before joining the faculty of the University of Virginia, where he eventually became University Professor and Professor of Physics. He has held several appointments as Visiting Scholar at the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. In 1987 he joined the faculty of George Mason University as Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Physics.

Prof. Trefil has written extensively about science for the general audience, including more than 25 books. He is the Contributing Editor for Science for USA TODAY Weekend. He serves as a regular contributor and science consultant for Smithsonian and Astronomy Magazines. He has served as a science commentator and member of the Science Advisory Board for National Public Radio and for numerous PBS productions. He is Chief Science Consultant to the McDougal-Lyttell Middle School Science Project.

He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association of the Advancement of Science, and the World Economic Forum. He is a member of the Davos Global Issues Group and is a General Councillor of the American Physical Society. Prof. Trefil received the 2000 Andrew W. Gemant Award for linking physics to the arts and humanities, given by the American Institute of Physics. He is a recipient of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Westinghouse Science Journalism Award and of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He has been named a Phi Beta Kappa national lecturer for 2003-2004.

His recent books are Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (with Robert Hazen), Other Worlds: The Solar System and Beyond (National Geographic), Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (Routledge, General Editor), Good Seeing: A Century of Science at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (with Margaret Hazen), and Cassell's Laws of Nature (Cassell, 2002).

His interest in scientific literacy began with a contributed essay to E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy and continued through participation as a co-author of the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (3rd edition, 2002). His textbook, The Sciences: An Integrated Approach (with Robert Hazen, 4th edition, 2004), has been widely adopted, and he served on the Content Review Board for the National Science Education Standards.

He has published over 100 papers in professional journals and has made contributions to research in elementary particle physics, fluid mechanics, medical physics (including cancer research) and the earth sciences.

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