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The Rocket Science of Sustainability

U of T alumnus relaunches New College lecture series

Professor Andrew Baines (former principal of New College), Professor Yves Roberge (Principal of New College), Sally Walker (Registrar and Assistant Principal of New College), Jaymie Matthews, Dorion Sagan and Colin Swift (president, New College Alumni Cou

When Carl Sagan gave the inaugural lecture for the Jacob Bronowski Memorial Lecture Series at the University of Toronto's New College in 1975, a first-year science student named Jaymie Matthews sat quietly in the audience with rapt attention.

On April 4, 2012, Matthews - now an Officer of the Order of Canada and Mission Scientist for the Canadian Space Agency - returned to his alma mater to re-launch the series as a hallmark event of New College’s 50th Anniversary celebrations.

Entitled The Rocket Science of Sustainability, his lecture explored the implications of recently discovered planets for scientists trying to understand the impacts of climate change.

“The lecture was by all accounts a major success,” said New College Principal Yves Roberge. “It brought people from all over the city, from such a wide range of professions and interests, to New College to consider a new perspective on a topic relevant to all of us.”

 It was exactly this that motivated Matthews.

“I was driven by the potential of the Bronowski Lectures to reach out beyond the University and draw in people that otherwise might not be involved in this level of discussion. I wanted people walking away discussing things that they hadn’t known before or wouldn’t have thought of,” he said.

Also weighing in on the subject as a surprise guest speaker was Dorion Sagan, the son of Carl Sagan and Dr. Lynn Margulis. Dorion is himself a highly esteemed science writer, essayist and theorist who has authored and co-authored some 24 books on topics ranging from culture and evolution to the history and philosophy of science. 

Matthews and Sagan both spoke passionately about the role of science in social discourse.

“Our job [as scientists] is to make the public aware of what we find so that they can decide how society should respond,” said Matthews. “The social responsibility rests on all of our shoulders, but scientists play an important role in raising awareness of these issues so that people can make informed decisions.”

The Jacob Bronowski Memorial Lectures at New College were created with exactly that purpose in mind. With a mandate of using an accessible, interdisciplinary approach to explore the social consequences of scientific inquiry and enterprise as it affects us today, the series has featured such prominent speakers as David Suzuki, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.

According to Roberge, the choice of this year’s lecturer was obvious.

“Not only is Jaymie a highly regarded astrophysicist, but he is also a New College alumnnus who actually attended the first lecture and then became a specialist in a field directly related to the first lecture," Roberge said. "The College is a place where connections are made, in research and among our students but rarely do they come together so perfectly as they did at this lecture.”