Penn Science/Lightbulb cafés begin anew for spring semester

Penn’s Science and Lightbulb cafés, where faculty members and the general public get together on Tuesday evenings for spirited discussions about the latest topics in academic research, are returning for the spring semester.

The 2016 series resumes on Jan. 26, with new Penn Integrates Knowledge and James S. Riepe University Professor Michael Platt. His talk, “Friendship and Your Brain,” will show how his study of monkey societies provides insight into human empathy.

In advance of the Oscars, the Feb. 9 Lightbulb Café will be hosted by Peter Decherney, a professor of English and cinema studies. For the talk, “Hollywood’s Past and Future,” Decherney will draw upon his new book, “Hollywood: A Very Short Introduction,” to explain how movie studios have weathered economic uncertainty and technological upheaval over the past century.

The Feb. 23 Science Café will feature Vijay Balasubmaranian, the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor of Physics. His talk, “Decoding Your Mental GPS: Transcendental Numbers in the Brain,” will address his research on how specialized neurons known as grid cells collaborate to keep track of location.

March will feature two Science Cafés: On March 1, Michael Weisberg, chair and professor of philosophy, will discuss the “Public (Mis)understanding of Evolution,” commemorating the decade since the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, which dealt with the teaching of Darwin’s theory in public schools.

On March 15, Brenda Casper, chair and professor of biology, will relate stories from her and her students’ years-long climate research project in northern Mongolia. In “Studying Climate Change in a Land of Nomads: How Species Will Respond to New Conditions in the Mongolian Steppe,” she will explain what their work is revealing about how plants and soil bacterial communities will respond to future warming and land-use change, and what that will mean for the region.

Another Lightbulb Café will take place on April 5 and feature Michael Horowitz, an associate professor of political science. His talk, “Why Leaders Fight,” based on his book of the same name, will discuss how studying the risk-aversion and propensity for violence found in the personal lives of leaders has enabled predictions of their behavior when it comes to military aggression.

At the April 19 Science Café, Lauren Sallan, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, will talk about “The Rise of Tiny Fish.” She’ll reveal some of her recent paleontological findings, which suggest that small, fast-reproducing fish possessed an evolutionary advantage over larger animals after a major ancient extinction event, which may have implications for trends in modern species today.

Finally, Rogers Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the associate dean for social sciences at the School of Arts & Sciences, will discuss “Birthright Citizenship, Immigration, and Presidential Politics in 2016” for the May 3 Lightbulb Café. His talk will address the 2016 presidential candidates and their perspectives on how they link to citizenship and immigration issues.

Science and Lightbulb Café lectures are held at World Cafe Live Upstairs, 3025 Walnut St. Each hour-long talk begins at 6 p.m. and is followed by an audience Q&A session. The events are free and open to the public, but seating is limited. To register, contact Gina Bryan at 215-898-8721 or email

Both lecture series are presented by the School of Arts & Sciences and the Office of University Communications.

The full spring semester schedule is available at the Penn Lightbulb and Science Café website.

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