Retired Marin physics teacher continues love of science with Wonderfest

Are we alone in the universe? Are we wired to be kind? What can we learn from animal behaviors? Will humanity go to the stars? Can exercising impact aging?

These are just some of the things Tucker Hiatt’s Wonderfest, which organizes public and online programs to inspire and nurture a deep sense of wonder about the world and science, examines in its work.

Founded by the Corte Madera resident and retired high school physics teacher in the late 1990s, Hiatt, who is the nonprofit organization’s executive director, hopes to inspire people of all ages and continue life-long learning through its programs, as well as support young researchers with its Science Envoy Program.

Wonderfest’s next talk is on the “Science of Happiness” by Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, at 7 pm Monday at the HopMonk Tavern at 224 Vintage Way in Novato.

Q When did your love of science begin?

TO In part it was influenced by my father, a civil engineer, but really it was television that got me. I’m a Trekkie. Watching the original “Star Trek” series, I loved Spock, the science officer aboard the USS Enterprise. In high school, my favorite teacher was my favorite because of how incredibly well informed he was in science and math, and he managed to make it exciting. I was inspired by him. I took a potential career exam and it told me what I knew, that I loved science and I also loved people and learning. It really did correctly recommend that I go into teaching. I did go into education, first in San Francisco, and then later moved to the Branson School for 12 years.

Q You graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics at the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, respectively. What drew you to physics?

TO At one time, physicists were known as natural philosophers, and I was for most of my life attracted to philosophy on the side often called metaphysics and the study of how we know what we know. I thought it would help keep my interests alive in science and philosophy.

Q What do you love about sharing science with others, whether through teaching or Wonderfest?

TO What I enjoyed about teaching and what got me excited was seeing the curiosity in students, and it is now being rewarded in fellow adults. Curiosity is a beautiful thing at any age.

Q What inspired you to start Wonderfest?

TO It was inspired by Carl Sagan, astronomer and science popularizer, and his penultimate 1995 book, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” His quote from him, “I hold that the popularization of science is successful if, at first, it does no more than spark the sense of wonder,” led to the name. And my work with UC Berkeley’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research team was very important to this. I was able to work with them for six summers during my high school teaching years. I made some good friends and saw how the work spans into many realms, such as astronomy, biology, chemistry and even sociology.

Q What are you interested in now in the science field?

TO First, survival comes to mind. I really am worried about climate change and I think we understand it well. It’s not like deep space travel, which we don’t understand well, but with climate change, we know what needs to be done, it’s just the difficulty of doing it and convincing ourselves that suffering problems now is worth it for the next generation or two. The two other areas that are always wonderful are the origin of life and the origin of awareness. We still don’t understand how life came about on Earth. Living organisms are tremendously complicated, even the simplest ones.

Q For people who say they’re not interested in science, what would you say to them?

TO I honestly believe people’s lives are enriched by their increasing understanding of the natural world, and I will enlarge that by saying it’s beneficial for a society that has people like this, people who are curious and come to understand how the world really works. Many people don’t know where to turn to get accurate information. I think science organizations, including Wonderfest, are helping people and help ground people’s understanding of the world in reality. People who can’t face reality are headed for deep trouble.

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