Two Centuries of Science for the Public
Celebrity scientists, world explorers, leaders in evolutionary theory—curious New Yorkers have come to the Academy to hear public lectures from these and other experts for two centuries. Highlights from our history of public programming demonstrate the long-standing popular appeal of science, and the sustained success of the Academy in engaging lay audiences.
In its first decades, monthly meetings at the Academy, then called the Lyceum of Natural History in the City of New York, provided Members with an opportunity to present and discuss their work. And these gatherings often attracted attention beyond the Academy—such as the lecture in 1824, when Members announced the discovery of a mastodon skeleton in a former marsh in New Jersey.
The Lyceum also invited distinguished scientists to deliver lecture series on subjects of general interest. The eminent geologist Benjamin Silliman took the podium in 1837—a time when new geological discoveries were provoking heated public debate over the origins and age of the Earth. In later decades, The New York Times reported on Lyceum meetings, describing a 1873 meeting this way, “A large audience, including many ladies” listened raptly to a paper on “a new form of electric light.”
The Academy undertook a new form of public outreach in the 1890s, with a series of exhibitions that garnered support from the city’s leading philanthropists. The latest advances in an array of scientific specialties were on display, among them paleontological specimens illustrating the evolution of horses, diphtheria anti-toxin, and the first examples of color photography.
The culmination of the Academy’s fourth exhibition, in 1897, was a presentation by Nikola Tesla, the world-famous rival of Thomas Edison and inventor of alternating current. According to accounts of the time, Tesla’s demonstrations were entertaining, but his talk was too technical. Nonetheless, the exhibition was a success, attracting some 4,000 people—“people asked questions about all that they saw, and asked them with an intelligent understanding,” said the Academy’s Secretary, Richard E. Dodge.
In the 20th century, even as it became known as a world leader in convening specialized scientific conferences, the Academy kept its doors open to all and expanded its educational programs. Just like today, speakers addressed newsworthy topics and made use of the latest technologies in their presentations, from lantern slides to PowerPoint presentations.
Today, public programs at the Academy attract an intellectual mix across ages, STEM fields, and sectors. A recent success was the 2016 six-part series, The Physics of Everything, which asked fundamental questions of wide-ranging significance: Where Do Physics and Philosophy Intersect? and Are We Alone in the Universe? And, as has been traditional for much of the Academy’s history, each event in the series included a reception, allowing the sold out audience for each presentation the opportunity to meet the speakers.
With international live streaming and podcasts we now reach public audiences far beyond the walls of our lecture hall. While Academy eBriefings provide summaries, reference material, and opportunities to explore topics further.
These technologies expand our reach, but for those who attend in person the experience of coming to the Academy to exchange ideas with other scientifically minded people remains special. After the reception ends and the lights are turned out, the discussion spills out onto the street and continues late into the night—just as it must have done 200 years ago.
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