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LECTURE TOPICS: Mars and Curiosity; war and peace

By Dave Jones on May 17, 2013 in University News

Two UC Davis figures in the Curiosity mission to Mars are set to give campus talks, while a Stanford professor will give the history department’s annual Eugene Lunn Memorial history lecture, this year on how people are safer today than ever before — surprisingly because of violence itself.

All of the talks are free and open to the public.

The Mars connection

Adam Steltzner, UC Davis alumnus — As an engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he led the entry, descent and landing team that guided the Curiosity rover to its successful touchdown inside Mars’ Gale Crater last August.

Steltzner and his team -- at one point, almost 2,000 people -- devised the rocket-powered "sky crane," which hovered over the planet's surface and gently lowered Curiosity on a cable.

His campus talk, “The Right Kind of Crazy: Risk, Reason and Engineering Curiosity to the Surface of Mars,” is scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday (May 21) in 1065 Kemper Hall.

Steltzner almost didn’t find his scientific muse: After a lackluster high school career, he wanted only to play bass and drums in various New Wave bands.

Then, one night in 1984, entranced by the constellation Orion while returning home from a gig, he embraced higher education with fresh enthusiasm. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1990, and followed that with a master’s degree in applied mechanics from the California Institute of Technology and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.

His early projects with JPL’s Spacecraft Structures and Dynamics Group included the Galileo and Cassini space probes, Mars Pathfinder, and the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

More about Steltzner.

Dawn Sumner, professor of geology — Before Steltzner could engineer the Curiosity landing, NASA had to pick where to put the rover — and Sumner co-chaired the working group that made the decision.

Now, as a deans’ distinguished speaker in the College of Letters and Science, she will give a talk on Curiosity’s latest findings. She also will reflect on her experience as a long-term planner and co-investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory mission, and its impact on society.

Sumner studied geology as an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology and received her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She joined the UC Davis faculty in 1997.

Most of her previous research has focused on reconstructing environments and understanding the evolution of microbes on early Earth, but recently her studies have expanded to include modern microbial ecosystems in Antarctic lakes that act as analogs for those on early Earth.

Sumner’s Mars program is scheduled from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 30, in the AGR Room at the Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center. A reception will follow the lecture.

Earlier coverage: UC Davis scientist prepares for Mars rover landing,” UC Davis news release and video, Aug. 2, 2012.

War and peace

Ian Morris, professor of classics and history at Stanford — Addressing the global history of war and peace, in a lecture based on his forthcoming book, War! What is it Good For? How Violence Made Civilization, from Primates to Robots.

“Anthropologists, archaeologists, evolutionists and psychologists have all reached a surprising conclusion: that the world is a safer place than ever before,” Morris said. “In the Stone Age, 10 percent to 20 percent of all the people who ever lived died violently, but in the 20th century — despite two world wars, genocide and the use of atomic bombs — just 1 percent to 2 percent died violently.

The decline of violence is the result of violence itself, he said. “Humans are safer today than ever before because they live in large, internally pacified societies, but history shows that these larger, safer societies have almost always been created by war.

“The great paradox of history is that violence has made the world a safer place; and the great question facing us in the 21st century is whether it will continue to do so, or whether it will destroy everything.”

The Lunn lecture series honors a 20-year faculty member who distinguished himself as a scholar in the field of modern European intellectual history.

Morris’ talk is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (May 23) in the AGR Room at the Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center.

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Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,