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Science on Saturday lecture series kicks off with tribute to PPPL engineer and SOS host

As hundreds of people gathered for the first day of the newly-named Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday lecture series on Jan. 10, many of the regular attendees remembered the PPPL engineer who was the organizer and informal host of the series for more than 20 years.

“As soon as I read it I was devastated because I didn’t know anything about it,” said Gary Grubb, of Hightstown, about Hatcher’s death last March at age 56. “Just to walk in here and hear kind words on a cold winter day is great.”

Grubb wrote a letter to the editor published in the Times of Trenton about Hatcher and Science on Saturday in which he recalled seeing Hatcher’s smiling face every Saturday at the lectures. “Over the many years he and I entered, explored, and shared many thoughts together,” he said in the letter. “Ron will be sorely missed, but surely never forgotten.”

Carlo and Mary Alfare, of Roosevelt, who have been coming to PPPL since the series started 31 years ago, said the series wouldn’t be the same without Hatcher there. “He was such a good guy,” said Mary Alfare. “We all knew him, we all talked to him. He was wonderful,” said Mary Alfare.

The Alfares brought their daughter, Kathleen, to the Science on Saturday lectures starting at age 3. They give the lectures some of the credit for her going on to get her PhD in chemistry. Kathleen Alfare Garber is now a professor at Saint Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

Andrew Zwicker, head of PPPL’s Science Education, said the Jan. 10 lecture was the first Science on Saturday in more than 20 years without Hatcher. “For those of you who knew him, he loved everything he did for the science on Saturday lecture series,” Zwicker said.

Zwicker told the audience that Hatcher was also “a very serious electrical engineer who was responsible for designing some of the most sophistical power supply systems used all over the world.”

He said there is no way to know how many young people and science enthusiasts Hatcher inspired. “He loved his Science on Saturday,” he said. “He was genuinely the heart and soul of the program.”

Zwicker read an excerpt from a letter he received from a high school student who said she and her friends “couldn’t wait for Friday to end” so they could attend the weekly lectures. “Thank you for inspiring young nerds,” she wrote. “Thank you for making physics accessible to the public.”

“Ron may be missing but he’ll never be forgotten,” Zwicker said as the audience of 340 people gave a warm round of applause in Hatcher’s memory.

Zwicker said he would continue Hatcher’s tradition of questioning guest speakers about what led them into science. He asked speaker Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at Princeton University, about what made him become a scientist.  Graziano said his father was a psychologist and helped inspire his interest in the natural world.

Graziano gave a lively discussion on “Consciousness and the Social Brain,” in which he introduced the topic with an orangutan puppet named “Kevin.”  Graziano is an amateur ventriloquist and he used Kevin to discuss the idea of consciousness and the brain. “You look at that puppet and perceive a mind and emotions emanating from him,” Graziano said.  Human beings evolved that consciousness and the ability to attribute consciousness to other beings, he said.

Neuroscience is currently a huge scientific revolution taking place in science that is  equivalent to the revolutions that began with Copernicus and Darwin, Graziano said.  Scientists are just beginning to understand how the mind relates to the brain and the mechanics and information in the brain, he said.

Graziano’s talk was so well received and there were so many questions that Zwicker eventually had to end the session and ask people to come talk to Graziano personally.

Among the people who stayed after the lecture was Ruth Levy, of Plainsboro, who said she has been coming to the lectures for 20 years. She was so excited to come to the first lecture that she arrived at PPPL’s gates at 7:40 a.m. “Coming here is like coming home,” she said. “I’ve been listening and enjoying the interesting lectures. People are sharing thoughts and it’s a very rewarding experience.”

The Science on Saturday lectures are videotaped and can be viewed a few days after the lecture. The Graziano lecture is available here.

The Science on Saturday lectures are held each Saturday at 9:30 a.m. through March 14. (There is no Science on Saturday lecture on Feb. 21 due to the Department of Energy’s New Jersey High School Science Bowl®). A downloadable schedule is available here. Visitors should plan to come early to ensure they get a seat in the auditorium and to enjoy coffee and bagels.

The lectures can also be viewed live at https://mediacentral.princeton.edu/id/1_rqmmkznx.


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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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