presentation storytelling oratory


I once saw an incredible lecture in Berkeley by a historian of science, one of the best talks I have ever seen. He started his talk sitting on the desk amongst a huge pile of physics textbooks from history, each in its day “the best textbook of its time.”

He began by showing us the text written by a student of Isaac Newton, which explained Newtonian forces and the motion of planets. Nevertheless, it had various mistakes and misunderstandings. He set it aside and moved to the next book, also excellent, but also flawed in some way.

And then the next. The speaker proceeded systematically through the historical procession of physics texts, highlighting how each had improved upon its predecessors, but also explaining in specific detail ways in which each of them was flawed.

Some were flawed in their account of light, another had an etching of a comet, “drawn by a person who had never seen a comet.” Eventually, the progression moved into the 20th century, but still the texts were wrong on various fundamental points, often now quite technical.

Finally, he got to the physics text used currently in Intro Physics classes. He explained how it had improved on its predecessor, and then said that he didn’t know of any specific physics issue it got wrong. He silently placed it on top of the pile of earlier, flawed texts.

What a punchline! And what an effective way to convey his main point. The implication was completely clear that of course we should expect that eventually this text also will come to be seen as fundamentally wrong on some issue or other.

This lecture has stuck with me now for decades as an example of excellence in how to give a talk—I remember it clearly now decades later. Would anyone know who it likely was that I saw? This was Berkeley in the early 1990s, but I think he was likely an invited guest speaker.

It may have been a talk for the Berkeley Skeptics Society. I remember the speaker intoning of each text, that “it was the premier text of physics in its time.”

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