Earlier this evening, Terence Tao, math professor at UCLA, gave a talk about “The Cosmic Distance Ladder” as a public lecture on-campus. Although you might think that basically all lectures are “public” since no one is seriously going to kick you out of “Signal Processing and Linear Systems I.” What “public lecture” actually means is that a very famous, very smart, very cool person is giving a lecture on something far below his or her capability to make preppy and only vaguely informed people (like me) think they’re learning and interacting in academic discourse. Before getting too much further, a few details on Terence Tao to show how awesome he is:
- He got a PhD from Princeton by age 20
- He won the Fields Medal in 2006 (The Fields Medal is the Nobel Prize for math, sort of)
- If you’re not convinced by the above, believe me when I say that he is one of the smartest people alive today
- He’s a blogger!
If I understood the real work that he does, I would go to one of his other two lectures, but being the layperson I am, I instead sat in on about an hour long lecture on the history of astrometrics, or how we figured out how far away things in space are without actually going there. He described the series of “rungs” of progress, beginning with Hipparchus estimating the size of the Earth over 2000 years ago to WMAP estimating the size of the universe today. Using no more than simple geometry and the fuzzy version of physics, he described the series of really good ideas that got us to where we are.
It was satisfying, if very “public lecture-y.” In my mind, I just saw a good hour-long PBS special on astrometrics and can now spout more trivia. The really good trivia, that is, that makes you feel smarter. Did I really want him to talk about his math instead? Probably not as it would’ve gone over my head. Neither did I really need the lecture he gave. Call me a nerd, but I think it was basically just a celebrity sighting for me.