Past Director’s Lecture Series
The Director’s Lecture Series has been offered each winter at the Arnold Arboretum since the arrival of Director William (Ned) Friedman in 2011. The series features experts addressing an array of topics related to Earth’s biodiversity and evolutionary history, the environment, conservation biology, and key social issues associated with current science. Past lectures are detailed here, with links to video or audio for select lectures.
Replaying Life’s Tape through the Lens of Plants
William (Ned) Friedman, Arnold Arboretum Director and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University
Monday, January 22, 7:00–8:30pm, Hunnewell Building
What can an understanding of the history of photosynthetic life tell us of the human condition? Are we, as a cognitive species, an absolutely inevitable consequence of several billion years of evolution? Or, should we wake up every morning with an exhilarating sense of the sheer improbability of just being! For decades, going back to the book Wonderful Life, by Stephen J. Gould, the debate as to the probabilities of intelligent life evolving not only here on Earth, but throughout the universe, has ebbed and flowed. None of the chief protagonists in this debate (zoologists, microbiologists, or philosophers) has ever thought about how an understanding of plant evolutionary history might bear heavily on the conclusions one reaches. Professor Friedman will discuss how just a few tweaks to the evolutionary history of plants might ultimately have precluded human life from evolving on Earth – and whether such tweaks could occur upon replaying life’s tape.
A Field for Women’s Work
Dava Sobel, Author and Science Reporter
Tuesday, February 13, 7:00–8:30pm, Hunnewell Building
In the late 19th century, botany was the science generally deemed acceptable for a woman to pursue. At the Harvard College Observatory, however, women were welcomed as computers, observers, and discoverers of new celestial phenomena. They attracted international attention as they created a taxonomy for the stars and found a way to measure distances across space. Dava Sobel, author of The Glass Universe, Galileo’s Daughter, and Longitude among others, will speak about the women of the Observatory, their careers devoted to the heavens, and their passions encompassing plants and all things natural.
The Fingerprints of Sea Level Change in a Warming World
Jerry X. Mitrovica, PhD, Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University
Monday, March 26, 7:00–8:30pm, Hunnewell Building
Sea level changes are a particularly dramatic consequence of global warming and estimates of the average rise in sea level over the past decade are routinely reported in the media. However, such estimates obscure the fact that observed sea level changes vary dramatically around the globe. Professor Jerry Mitrovica will describe the sources of this variability and focus on the unique patterns – or fingerprints – of sea level change that follow the melting of ice sheets and glaciers. Those of us who live on the US east coast should be far more concerned about the fate of the distant Antarctic Ice Sheet than the future of our neighbor, the ice sheet that now covers Greenland.
When Darwin Met Thoreau
On January 1, 1860, Henry David Thoreau learned about a new work of science entitled On the Origin of Species. Within a month, he had read the book, taken extensive notes, and begun to incorporate Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection into his understanding of nature. In this talk, Professor Randall Fuller will recount Thoreau’s deep engagement with what remains one of the most important concepts of the nineteenth century. Fuller is the author of The Book that Changed America.
Responses to Anthropogenic Climate Change: Predicting the Future Requires Knowing the Past
Camille Parmesan, PhD, Professor, Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin, and Chair in the Public Understanding of Oceans and Human Health, National Marine Aquarium, University of Plymouth, UK
Tuesday, October 4, 7:00–8:30pm, Hunnewell Building
Camille Parmesan’s work focuses on the impacts of climate change on wildlife, from field studies of American and European butterflies to synthetic analyses of global impacts on a broad range of species on land and in the oceans. She has participated in US and international assessments of climate change impacts and provided formal testimonies for the US House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, and the Texas Senate Natural Resources Committee. Camille has served as a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in 2007 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Naomi Oreskes’ research focuses on the earth and environmental sciences, with a particular interest in understanding scientific consensus and dissent. Her 2004 essay “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” (Science 306: 1686) has been widely cited, both in the United States and abroad, including in the Royal Society’s publication, “A Guide to Facts and Fictions about Climate Change,” in the Academy-award winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, and in Ian McEwan’s novel, Solar. Her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming, co-authored with Erik M. Conway, received the 2011 Watson-Davis Prize from the History of Science Society.
Richard Holmes is an award-winning British author best-known for his biographical studies of major figures of British and French Romanticism. Recent books include Falling Upwards, How We Took to the Air: An Unconventional History of Ballooning, and The Age of Wonder, both winners of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books. Holmes’ other books include Footsteps, Sidetracks, Shelley: The Pursuit, Coleridge: Early Visions, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage. He was awarded the OBE in 1992, and is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the British Academy. His new book, This Long Pursuit, is a confessional chronicle and pilgrimage that takes him across three centuries, through much of Europe and into both his intellectual passions as well as the lively company of many earlier biographers. Central to his book is a powerful evocation of the lives of women—both scientific and literary.
Dinosaur Landscapes and the Beginning of Flowers
Peter Crane, Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University
Monday, February 1, 7:00–8:30pm, Hunnewell Building
It was once famously said that plants and animals “dance to a different evolutionary beat.” There is no more striking example than between 140 and 65 million years ago when dinosaurs dominated the global landscape. While some changes in dinosaur communities certainly occurred through this period, much more dramatic was a major upheaval in the composition of the world’s vegetation, including the first appearance and rapid rise to dominance of flowering plants. Discoveries over the past 35 years, combined with new paleontological techniques, have provided previously unexpected insights into the expansion of flowering plants about 100 million years ago, including the nature of the earliest flowers. Subsequently, for more than 30 million years, dinosaurs shared the landscape with plants very similar to those of today, but these unusual ecosystems came to a sudden end when dinosaurs met their demise in one of the most dramatic of all mass extinctions. In contrast, flowering plants not only persisted, but flourished and evolved in new ways, resulting in the more than 350,000 flowering plant species that now sustain us and enrich our lives.
The Director’s Lens on Plants: Five Tales of Plant Obsession
William (Ned) Friedman, Arnold Arboretum Director and Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University
Monday, March 7, 7:00–8:30pm
Arboretum Director William (Ned) Friedman has an eye for detail and infectious enthusiasm when the subject matter is plants. For nearly two years, he has been regularly walking in the Arboretum’s living collections, intensively photographing and documenting these magnificent plants and their biological magic. In this evening session, Ned will share his images and stories of some of the most wonderful and ephemeral phenomena that he has had the good fortune to observe in the Arboretum. Join us for an interactive session on buzz pollination in the rhododendrons; the quest for the perfect picture of a young red larch cone; the incredible lightness of winged birch fruits; nectar guides (for insects) and the “Nedbud” redbud (Cercis canadensis) mutant; and magnolias in fruit. With spring nearly in sight, he will celebrate some of the extraordinary beauty of the Arboretum’s plants and whet your appetites for the year to come.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus
Charles C. Mann, journalist and writer
Monday, April 4, 7:00–8:30pm
Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately cleaned streets and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Combining science, history, and archeology, Charles C. Mann will present a transformative look at a rich and fascinating world, radically altering our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.
Mutants in our Midst: Darwin, Horticulture, and Evolution
William (Ned) Friedman, PhD, Director, Arnold Arboretum and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University
Monday, January 12, 7:00–8:30pm
Director Ned Friedman spoke of the horticultural varieties that we grow in gardens as premier examples of the ongoing process of evolution: random mutations that lead, on the rarest of occasions, to novel and desirable biological characteristics. Throughout his life, Charles Darwin (as well as other nineteenth century evolutionists) looked to the world of horticulture and plant domestication to gain critical insights into the generation of variation and the process of natural selection that underlie evolutionary change. Dr. Friedman explained how horticulture played a central role in laying the foundations for discovering evidence of evolution as well as the process of evolution and also argued that modern botanical gardens can and should become a leading force for the promotion of evolutionary thinking.
The Oldest Living Things in the World
Rachel Sussman, Photographer
Monday, March 2, 7:00–8:30pm
Since 2004 Rachel Sussman has been researching, working with biologists, and traveling the world to photograph continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older. Her work spans disciplines, continents, and millennia: it is part art and part science, has an innate environmentalism, and is underscored by an existential incursion into Deep Time. Her original index of millennia-old organisms, The Oldest Living Things in the World, has never before been created in the arts or sciences. Attendees enjoyed her awe-inspiring photographs and heard what it means to bear witness to organisms that perhaps predate human history and that may survive well into future generations.
China, Biodiversity, and the Global Environment
Peter Raven, PhD, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden
Monday, March 23, 7:00–8:30pm
China boasts not only the largest percentage of the world’s population (19%) but also one of Earth’s richest and most diverse floras. Yet its economic rise as an industrial nation and its population density, with the associated environmental degradation, put this biodiversity at risk. Add in climate change and it is a recipe for disaster. Professor Peter Raven, a leading botanist, advocate for the conservation of biodiversity, and one of the co-editors of The Flora of China, a joint Chinese-American census of all the plants of China, is uniquely qualified to assess the consequences of over-population, industrial pollution, economic inequalities, and natural resource exploitation in China—consequences not limited to that country but affecting the entire global environment. In this talk, Dr. Raven considered what it means for humanity to lose thousands of species to extinction, many before they are known or described by scientists. He presented his thoughts on reversing environmental degradation in China and around the globe and what is required to move all people toward an ethic of conservation and securing sustainability.
Richard Lazarus, Howard and Katherine Aibel Professor of Law, Harvard University
Monday, April 20, 7:00–8:30pm
What happens when laws and regulations don’t keep pace with changes in technology, science, and society? The answer, according to Harvard Law School Professor Richard Lazarus, is lawlessness. Come learn some of the history and circumstances behind the country’s current but outdated environmental laws, how the original scope and intentions of these laws may no longer match the scope of the problems we face today, and the lawmaking challenges we now face as we seek to address the mounting environmental risks posed by deepwater drilling, natural gas fracking, and climate change. Professor Lazarus, who teaches environmental law, natural resources law, Supreme Court advocacy, and torts at Harvard Law School, was the principal author of Deep Water–The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling (GPO 2011), the Report to the President of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling Commission. He spoke of lessons learned from this environmental disaster and how new regulations in line with current technologies are needed to better protect the environment as we tap our natural resources.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt, PhD, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University January 27
Stephen Greenblatt spoke about his book, The Swerve, an innovative work of history and thrilling story of discovery in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it. This last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—was a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.
Déjà vu all over again: Denialism of Climate Change and of Evolution
Eugenie Scott, PhD, Former Executive Director, Chair, Advisory Council, National Center for Science Education February 10
Both evolution and global warming are “controversial issues” in education, but are not controversial in the world of science. There is remarkable similarity in the techniques used by both camps to promote their views. The scientific issues are presented as “not being settled”, or that there is considerable debate among scientists over the validity of claims. Both camps practice “anomaly mongering”, in which a small detail, seemingly incompatible with either evolution or global warming, is held up as dispositive of either evolution or of climate science. In both cases, reputable, established science is under attack for ideological reasons. Eugenie Scott deconstructed the arguments and identified the ideologies that hinder widespread understanding of evolution and responsiveness to climate change. View the talk on WGBH’s Forum Network and read an article referenced in her talk.
Darwin in the City: How Modern Civilization Drives Evolution
Carl Zimmer, Columnist,The New York Times March 24
When we picture evolution, we think of fish crawling from the sea hundreds of millions of years ago, or birds evolving into new species on remote islands. But evolution takes place today, in the most unexpected places–in city parks, in farm fields, and in hospitals. Humans, scientists now recognize, are a powerful evolutionary force, pushing life in new directions. Now, researchers are wondering where we’re headed. Carl Zimmer, author of Evolution: Making Sense of Life, will present some of the ways that modern civilization drives evolution and current thinking about humans as a force of change.View the talk on WGBH’s Forum Network.
Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Extreme Fermented Beverages
Patrick E. McGovern, PhD, Scientific Director, Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health, University of Pennsylvania Museum April 14
Fermented beverages have probably been with the human race from its beginning in Africa. Following a tantalizing trail of archaeological, chemical, artistic, and textual clues, Patrick E. McGovern, the leading authority on ancient alcoholic beverages, will describe how enterprising our ancestors were in concocting a host of beverages from a vast array of natural products (honey, grape, barley, rice, sorghum, chocolate). As humans spread around the planet, this had profound effects on our cultural and biological development. Some of these beverages, including the earliest alcoholic beverage from China (Chateau Jiahu), the mixed drink served at the King Midas funerary feast (Midas Touch), and the chocolate beverage (Theobroma), have been re-created by Dogfish Head Brewery, shedding light on how our ancestors made them and providing a taste sensation and a means for us to travel back in time. The talk will be followed by a tasting of ancient beers recreated by Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales. Participants in the tasting must be 21 or older.
Plants, The First Three Billion Years: A Reflection on the Nature of Evolutionary History
William (Ned) Friedman, Director, Arnold Arboretum, and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University January 14
Plant biodiversity. How did it all begin? And what are some of the key evolutionary twists and turns that have deposited us into a world teaming with photosynthetic life? Join us as we explore how lunch for a unicellular organism inadvertently laid the groundwork for the first plants, and how they then went on to produce exquisitely beautiful multicellular photosynthetic lineages dozens of times, only one of which made it out of the water and onto land 475 million years ago. And finally, we will reflect on what might have been (and what might be) if one or two of these twists and turns had gone differently in evolutionary history.
Biodiversity 2013: Crisis and Opportunity
James Hanken, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Curator in Herpetology, and Director, Museum of Comparative Zoology; and Professor of Biology, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University February 25
The state of biodiversity in 2013 presents a tremendous paradox. Biodiversity science is more productive today than ever before; the rate of new species discovery, for example, is higher than it’s ever been. At the same time, the rate of species extinction is increasing dramatically due to human-mediated environmental degradation on a global scale. This crisis for the future of biological diversity offers unparalleled challenges and opportunities for the professional scientific community, which is responding with new approaches and a heightened sense of urgency, with increasing focus both on conservation of species and their habitats and on the major drivers of extinction.
Plastic: A Toxic Love Story
Susan Freinkel, Science Writer and Journalist March 11
As coal fueled the industrial revolution, one could say that plastic built the modern world. But a century into our love affair with plastic, we’re starting to realize it’s not such a healthy union. Plastics draw on dwindling fossil fuels, leach harmful chemicals, litter landscapes, and destroy marine life. And yet each year we use and consume more; we’ve produced as much plastic in the past decade as we did in the entire twentieth century. Journalist Susan Freinkel will speak about our dependence on this material, guiding us through history, science, and the global economy to assess the real impact of plastic in our lives. She’ll present a new way of thinking about a substance that has become the defining medium—and metaphor—of our age. Her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, will be available for purchase and signing.
The New You: How Symbiosis Studies Have Undercut Biological Views of Individuality
Scott Gilbert, Howard A. Schneiderman Professor of Biology, Swarthmore College April 8
What defines an individual? Can an animal be construed an individual if its anatomy, physiology, development, and even its immune systems depend on symbiotic microorganisms? What becomes of the genetic and evolutionary individual when inherited symbionts provide selectable variation for the host? Animal plus symbiont equals…what? Super-animal? Team? Holobiont? Have we been lumping and sorting erroneously only to learn through advances in biotechnology that individuals are really communities or, perhaps, relationships? Join us for a mind-bending presentation that may leave you reassessing your place in the biosphere.
The Evolution of Big
Ned Friedman, Director, Arnold Arboretum, and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University January 9
Think you know trees? Ned Friedman reveals an amazing period when there were no trees, and then, in the blink of a geological eye, several different groups of plants evolved the ability to increase their girth and qualify for placement in an arboretum. Get a sense of what forests looked like over three hundred million years ago. Learn about the (sad) extinction of all but one of the early arborescent lineages of plants and find out which evolutionary group of trees survived to populate the Arnold Arboretum and today’s forests.
The Global Forests of Greenhouse Earth
Kirk Johnson, Vice President of Research & Collections and Chief Curator, Denver Museum of Nature and Science
Earth’s climate has passed from times characterized by huge ice caps to times when there was almost no ice at all and both Greenland and Antarctica were covered by forests. Kirk Johnson studies fossil leaves to refine geologic time, reconstruct ancient landscapes, track climate change, and document the evolution and extinction of species and ecosystems. For 30 years he has been chasing the 50–100 million year-old-forests of the last great global greenhouse period. In this lecture, he takes you on a journey to an entirely different Planet Earth—an environment that may help us to better understand changes occurring in our own time.
Art as a Source of Information on Horticultural Technology
Jules Janick, James Troop Distinguished Professor of Horticulture, Purdue University
March 5 Watch the lecture on YouTube »
Works of art from antiquity to the present constitute an alternate source of information on horticultural technology and science, providing significant information on subjects such as the history of technology, crop evolution, lost traits, and crop dispersal. Sources include ancient mosaics, sculpture, illustrations of medieval manuscripts, renaissance paintings, and illustrations from illuminated and printed herbals. The uses of art as a source of horticultural technology are illustrated using examples of Paleolithic sculpture and painting, Egyptian and Mesopotamian sculpture and painting, ancient Greek paintings, Roman mosaics, Medieval illuminated herbals, and Renaissance art in its many manifestations including illustrated prayer books, frescoed ceilings, paintings, drawings, sculpture, and woodcuts from printed herbals.
Exploring Terra Incognita: The Extraordinary Diversity of Microbes on Us, in Us, and All Around Us
Noah Fierer, Assistant Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder March 19
Watch the lecture on YouTube »
Microorganisms are ubiquitous and abundant on Earth. You inhale thousands of microbial cells in every breath and your body is home to 100 trillion of them. Only in the past few years have we been able to describe the enormous diversity of microorganisms that live in familiar environments, including your forehead, your computer keyboard, plant leaves, and the soil in your garden. In this lecture, Noah Fierer speaks about recent work exploring microbial diversity on the human body, the effects these organisms (most of which are not pathogenic) may have on our health, and how we may be able to use bacteria for forensic identification. He also discusses ongoing work exploring bacterial diversity in the atmosphere through which unexpected sources of airborne bacteria in U.S. cities have been identified. His presentation highlights some future research directions in the burgeoning field of microbial ecology and how this research will likely alter how we think about ‘germs’ and human-microbe interactions.
A Darwinian Look at Darwin’s Evolutionist Ancestors
Ned Friedman, Director, Arnold Arboretum, and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University January 10
For over a century before the publication of On the Origin of Species, naturalists, theologians, atheists, horticulturists, medical practitioners, poets, and philosophers had advanced evolutionary concepts for the diversification of life through descent with modification. The early history of evolutionary thought will be examined through the lens of Charles Darwin’s highly personal views of his evolutionist ancestors. We will examine the question of what set Darwin apart from the dozens of advocates of evolution who preceded him. Is Darwin truly deserving of his place in history? Come find out!
Restoring Hawaii’s Marvels of Evolution
Robert Robichaux, University of Arizona February 7
Evolving in splendid isolation over millions of years, Hawaii’s native plants exhibit patterns of diversity that are unrivaled elsewhere on Earth. Especially striking are the many examples of adaptive radiation, in which original immigrants to the islands evolved into dazzling arrays of plants exhibiting great variation in form and habitat preference. Yet Hawaii’s native plants face an uncertain future. Many native plants, such as the exquisitely beautiful silverswords and lobeliads, now teeter on the edge of extinction. Join botanist Robert Robichaux of the University of Arizona and the Hawaiian Silversword Foundation as he discusses recent efforts to restore Hawaii’s marvels of plant evolution.
The Good, the Bad, and Occasionally the Dead: Humanity’s Relationship with Earth’s Nitrogen
Alan Townsend, University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Arizona February 28
How do we lead the lives we want while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can support future generations? These challenges will define the coming century, and one of them lies at the heart of the most fundamental of human needs: the need to eat. Come hear about the occasionally odd and often dramatic history of humanity’s relationship with phosphorous and nitrogen, the good these chemical elements do and the harm they cause, and ultimately, the reasons we can have hope for a better future.
Our Constitution’s Intelligent Design
In 2005, Judge John Jones presided over the landmark case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, and thereafter rendered an opinion holding that it is unconstitutional to teach the concept of intelligent design as an alternative to the theory of evolution. In the aftermath of that ruling, Judge Jones, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, was subjected to intense criticism. Judge Jones will highlight some of the lessons he learned from these experiences, including the development of his passion for judicial independence, and a belief in the need for better civics education, particularly related to our three branches of government.