BETTING LIFE STARTED
The more I examine the universe and study the de-
tails of its architecture, the more evidence I find
that the universe in some sense must have known
we were coming.
—Freeman Dyson, in Disturbing the Universe
As a scientist who speaks frequently to audiences ranging from school children to college students, teachers, and the general public, I’ve learned not to be too surprised when audience expectations differ from my own. For one thing, I never expect an audience to be particularly large, unless the professors at a local college are offering extra credit for their students to attend (extra credit works like a charm at filling lecture halls!), which is why I’m always flattered by the two people who show up a half hour early because they’re worried about finding seats. My talk topics can also lead to mismatched expectations. I was at the College of Charleston a few years back, where the astronomy faculty had graciously arranged for me to offer a public talk based on my prior book for the general public. They’d warned me that few students would be able to attend, and that other public talks on astronomy rarely drew more than a few dozen people. So imagine our surprise when the room with 75 chairs was packed standing room only with crowds overflowing out the door! There was a simple explanation, of course: The local newspaper had misprinted my credentials, saying that I was an astrologer rather than an astronomer. To their credit, not a single person walked out when I explained that I’d have nothing at all to say about horoscopes, and was instead planning to limit my remarks to topics such as the scale of space and time and the birth and fate of the universe. Did I disappoint them? I suppose I’ll never know.
These days, most of my talks for general audiences are either talks for kids based on my children’s books or talks for grownups based on this book. The kids tend to come without any major expectations, aside from