Lectures for a New Year: First Week in Review


For the month of January I'm bringing you a great lecture every weekday. This week we covered neurology, art, creativity, ecology, writing, achieving childhood dreams, and most importantly lots of jokes. In case you missed one, here's a review of the lectures posted this week.

The Last Lecture, First (Randy Pausch)

To kick off the series, I’ve selected a lecture that’s deeply inspirational and a little heartbreaking. On September 18, 2007, Carnegie Mellon Computer Science professor Randy Pausch delivered his now-famous “last lecture”: he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer late in 2006, and by 2007 had little time left to live. In his final months, Pausch redoubled his commitment to education, most notably with this hour-and-fifteen-minute talk now known as “The Last Lecture.” (For the record, this was part of a Carnegie Mellon series of “last lectures” in which speakers imparted wisdom as if this lecture were their last. Pausch was the only lecturer who was actually terminally ill; the full title of his lecture was “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”). After this lecture, Pausch wrote a book based on the lecture, and it went on to become a bestseller in early 2008. Pausch died later that year. This lecture has been viewed at least 14 million times — won’t you have a look?

Read more and watch the lecture.

Being a Genius vs. Having a Genius (Liz Gilbert)

Liz Gilbert is best known for writing Eat, Pray, Love, which (unlike apparently ever other person in the country) I still haven’t read. But she’s someone who’s been a reasonably successful writer for decades. When her breakthrough memoir became such a huge deal (10 million copies and counting…), Gilbert’s perspective on her own creative process had to change: in all likeliness, her best work (or at least her best-known work) was behind her. How could she continue to write, knowing that, in essence, she could never “top” that book?

In this TED Talk (only twenty minutes long!), Gilbert discusses the challenges of surviving a creative career — and not just a spectacularly successful one. She discusses historical notions of separating “inspiration” and “genius” into a separate source from the author/artist, so that creative people aren’t burdened with complete responsibility for their success and failure. The talk is funny, frantic, and smart. You don’t have to agree with her ideas (you may go on believing that writers really do generate ideas themselves), but Gilbert raises a series of provocative questions, not least of which: are we okay with many of our best creative minds drinking/drugging themselves to death?

Read more and watch the lecture.

Parrots, the Universe, and Everything (Douglas Adams)

I present what is likely Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams’s last public appearance — he died of a heart attack on May 11, 2001, mere days after this talk at UC San Diego was filmed. This is a man in the prime of his life, about to be struck down. And he is cracking wise throughout, telling truly wonderful, engaging stories, but with a shattering message: just as our world is being pulled together by information technology, we are destroying species faster than ever before (unless you count, as he says, the points at which Earth has been hit by asteroids).

In the lecture, Adams recounts his hilarious adventures traveling the world studying endangered wildlife, learning about the odd, endearing lives of vanishing species…and what animal extinction means for the lives of humans. The talk was given about a decade after Adams published his favorite book, Last Chance to See. He took to the stage eleven years after the book was released, to tell its story — this was a lecture of love, not promoting a hot new book. As Adams says in his introduction: “Virtually every author I know, their own favorite book is the one that sold the least.”

Read more and watch the lecture.

The Brain, Art, and Neurology (V.S. Ramachandran)

V.S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist of the peculiar. Rama investigates unusual cases, and through his research he often helps people tremendously — for example, he invented the mirror box, which is used to treat phantom limb pain in amputees. He also actively studies and seeks to understand topics like synesthesia, rather than simply dismissing them as odd or quirky phenomena.

In this riveting lecture, Rama walks through a variety of curious neurological topics, building a case for how the brain perceives everything — and ultimately how it perceives art. While this lecture has more to do with neurology than art, it’s still of interest to those who dig art, and there is indeed a lot of discussion in the latter half of what art might be, whether art can be considered universal, and how art might function in the brain.

Read more and watch the lecture.

Up Next

Next week, we'll talk science, technology, math, and engineering. Warm up your browsers!

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we’ll check it out! (And many thanks to the readers who have already sent in suggestions!)