So I’ve spent a few months now feeding my brain some academic candy. Might not sound like fun to most folks, but I find it curiously soothing. I’ve listened to a lot of brainy people – some talks are just that – talks – others have been debates. And in the spirit of celebrating this peculiar sort of hobby, I thought I’d give you all a run down of the best of the best. All available on youtube so if any of them intrigue you, look ’em up.
The “A” Team Leaders
1. Robert Sapolosky: The one who got me hooked on listening to open college classes on the ‘net. Totally free and in their entirety. His credentials? PhD. Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University. Research Associate at the National Museums of Kenya. The attraction? His gentle humor, the way he weaves his personal experiences as a primatologist into his lessons in such a way that it does not feel like a class at all, the fantastic way he has of teaching complicated subjects, making this complexity so personal that you can easily connect lessons to the real world, his intense love and respect for field work and his connection to the natural world. The videos that hooked me? Human Behavioral Biology (Stanford class, 25 lectures).
2. Bart Ehrman: PhD of Divinity from Princeton. He is a New Testament Scholar and, while no longer a Christian himself, contributes brilliantly to an understanding of ancient times and the evolution of the Christian faith within the context of the ancient world. I had absolutely zero interest in anything historical until I heard Bart speak. Also a man of incredibly gentle good humor. He is also extremely knowledgeable, a great teacher and an unparalleled debater. To get me from “ho hum – ancient civilization” to “Say, this is some pretty interesting stuff!” is pretty hard, but after listening to Bart, I began to wonder if I could learn to read Greek and began thinking about how awesome it would be to read these ancient manuscripts in their original languages.
The rest of the “A” Team (great listening, just not quite as good as Sapolsky and Ehrman):
1. Dr. Oliver Sacks. PhD in Neurology and professor at the NYU School of Medicine. Now well into his 80’s, he still teaches, practices medicine and writes books. Dr. Sacks was the physician whose work with victims of encephalitis was featured in the movie Awakenings. A reticent man, but one with an eye for presenting the most intriguing case studies. I actually read many of his books before listening to him speak and I’ll pretty much read everything the man writes.
2. Dr. Henry Marsh. PhD. Neuroscience. There is a fantastic documentary of his experiences working with a doctor who operated in an impoverished area of the Ukraine. It’s called The English Surgeon. Marsh pioneered the technique of doing “awake” brain surgery, which helps surgeons to operate on the brain without accidentally disabling some crucial area of the patient’s brain.
3. Paul Bloom, PhD. and Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science. His Yale introductory psychology class is excellent and available in it’s entirety on YouTube. He also has an wonderful dry wit that keeps the class interesting and relevant.
4. V.S. Ramachandran, PhD and Professor of Psychology and Neurosciences, UC San Diego. He’s a great speaker and he’s the inventor of a very low tech device called a “mirror box” that helps amputees recover from phantom limb syndrome. He has wide-ranging scientific interests and also is able to engage, without intimidating, his audience.
5. Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD in Astrophysics. What can I say? Almost everyone knows him already. Infectious laughter, contagious curiosity, intelligence without pretension. Again, one who inspired me to become interested in astrophysics, a subject in which I had absolutely no previous interest. I can’t think of a better person to inspire young people to fall in love with science, not just as a practical matter, but as one that stirs the imagination.
6. Patricia Churchland, PhD in Philosophy. Professor of neurophilosophy at UC San Diego. I watched her give a book-signing talk once (in addition to many other videos) and she was so gentle with just everyone (even people asking questions that would make me go, “Oh for heaven’s sake! I can’t believe you just asked that!”). An amazing educator and someone who knows how to present philosophy in a way that is both exciting and accessible.
7. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Lutheran pastor who breaks every stereotype you might have about religion. Loved her book “Pastrix,” and love the fact that she talks about Jesus one moment and then says, boldly and honestly, that her “F” word isn’t always “faith.” She doesn’t preach “at” people and she is able to articulate her experiences in ways that resonate with real people. In this article, she says, “I speak like other people. Lots of people want pastors to be examples of shining piety. There are lots of pastors for those people. There aren’t many for people like me.”
8. Richard Feynman (deceased, but still speaking through the miracle of the interwebs 🙂 ), PhD in theoretical physics. OMG – if you’ve never listened to this man, you really need to give him a try. He was the kind of person that you would love to go discuss science with – over a beer, in a dive bar somewhere in a gritty neighborhood. You will fall in love with him, guaranteed.
9. Shane Claiborne. Social justice advocate and one of the founding members of the New Monasticism movement which advocates service to the poor, community and voluntary simplicity. He’s been a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq, worked with Mother Teresa and lives and works in a community he built up in an impoverished area of Philadelphia. He’s written a book that’s on my “must read” list called The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
10. Rupert Sheldrake. PhD in biochemistry. Dr. Sheldrake is one of the leading consciousness researchers and holds a diametrically opposed position to Dr. Churchland in that he does not support scientific materialism. In other words, he is a scientific heretic with the knowledge to support his ideas, the ability to articulate them and the courage to challenge scientific dogma.
11. Sir Ken Robinson. PhD. in Education. His contributions to contemporary issues with the education system make me want to get up and do a few fist pumps. His vision for what the field of education could be, as opposed to what it currently is, stirs the imagination and inspires people to re-think the whole structure of modern education from kindergarten through college.
So that rounds out my best of the best. Others I have listened to with various degrees of engagement:
1. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (evolutionary biologist and deceased journalist, respectively). Both are brilliant, witty and wry. (Warning for my Christian friends: Both are outspoken advocates for atheism.) I enjoy what I can learn from them about science and history, but their atheistic dogma becomes a bit repetitive after awhile. I love that they advocate stridently for science education, unlike Ehrman and Churchland, but they seem to lack the ability to connect on a human level. I take the science knowledge and leave the dogma.
2. Steven Pinker, PhD. in experimental psychology. His area of expertise is linguistics and he is a very good speaker with some very interesting thoughts. I particularly enjoyed his short talk on The Language of Swearing. 🙂 I do get a bit distracted by his hair, though, so I have to listen and not watch.
3. AronRa. A very outspoken advocate for evolutionary biology (and by default, against creationism). No matter what your point of view is, however, when he focuses on teaching biological science and paleontology, you always pick up some interesting information such as why dogs have dew claws (hint: ancient dog-like ancestor 🙂 )
4. Dale B. Martin PhD. Along the lines of Bart Ehrman, he teaches the New Testament from a literary and historical point of view. You can listen to his entire Yale class here.
5. Reza Aslan. Yes he’s a Muslim who wrote a book about Jesus. Chill out. He also holds PhD in Sociology and is both a New Testament scholar and an articulate speaker with a great sense of humor and a good deal of knowledge regarding the ancient world. So you may not want to give him a listen if you are put off by his faith, but that does not take one thing away from his scholarship, which has been peer reviewed and published in academic journals.
6. The Dali Lama. Because he is just awesome. He manages to convey playfulness and peace simultaneously which is quite lovely.