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Sonoma Valley High’s 1980 grad Charlie Marcus first speaker at new lecture series

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Charlie Marcus’s TEDx Talk

Marcus gave a TEDx lecture at Caltech in 2011, on the topic of Nanoelectronics and Quantum Computation.

See the video here.

After describing transistors as “little switches turned on or off by electricity,” which is elementary physics by any high school student’s standards, Marcus then adds that “quantum mechanics says that the switch can be both on and off simultaneously.”

With nods to electronic music and Schrodinger’s Cat, Marcus glibly takes the audience from the inscrutable to the incredible, doing it in such an affable way that the listener can chuckle at the jokes without having any idea what he’s talking about.

Expect that sort of conversation next Friday, May 12, at the Barn at the Vadasz Family Vineyards, 1815 Grove St., Sonoma. More information at svgreatschools.org.

The Sonoma Education Foundation is jumping into the speaker business, launching its Barn Talks series next week with a presentation and discussion featuring quantum physicist Charles M. “Charlie” Marcus — SVHS ’80 — at the Barn at Vadasz Family Vineyards.

Marcus’s area of expertise may seem a stretch for a hometown audience, but Sonoma has shown a remarkable appetite for high-level lectures over the years, from Praxis Peace Institute talks on political science, to the news industry notables recently featured in the Sonoma Speakers Series.

What’s different about the Barn Talks series is that the speakers will all be Sonoma graduates — alumni or former students of local schools who have gone on to make an impression in the world at large.

The Barn Talk series was conceived by the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation board member Gail Diserens.

“I love TED talks, and originally it was going to be along those lines,” said Diserens. “I believe public speaking is a crucial career skill.” Diserens is a 2014 Jefferson Award winner for her dedicated support of helping students expand their college horizons.

She admitted she was both inspired by and intimidated by the Sonoma Speakers Series’ impressive line-up of national media figures. “That’s when we realized we had to make it more local, utilizing celebrated Sonoma High graduates to start.”

Debra Garber, executive director of the Foundation, says the plan is to produce three to four Barn Talks per year featuring high school alumni and current students hosted in unique barns around Sonoma.

“And each of the Barn Talks will benefit one of our programs or clubs,” said Garber.

This debut Barn Talk will help support the SVHS Engineering, Design and Technology Academy, a career-focused learning program at the high school.

(The Foundation also supports the Sustainable Agriculture program at the high school, another career-focused academy.)

Understandably, there’s an aspirational component to it, too. By showing today’s high school students where a career path can lead, the Foundation hopes to inspire them to try a little bit harder — pay a little more attention to tomorrow.

Case in point: Charles M. Marcus, Class of ’80. He was planning to return to town next weekend for induction into the Dragon Hall of Fame, an honor for graduates who went on to bigger and better things after leaving Sonoma Valley High. He will be one of 11 former students and teachers to be inducted at that May 13 luncheon at Hanna Boys Center.

“Charlie is both a dear friend, and an iconic example of how our local public schools can launch students into fantastic career paths,” said Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Louann Carlomagno who, like Marcus, was a member of the SVHS 1980 graduating class.

“His enthusiasm for science and physics all started right here in Mr. Knight’s classroom at Sonoma Valley High School.”

Dean Knight himself is still teaching science at the high school, and remembers Marcus with great affection. “For some reason I still picture Charlie as he was when he graduated from Sonoma Valley High — cheerful, and at ease, with everyone.”

Though his days in Knight’s high school science classes are almost 40 years gone, clearly they set the stage for an impressive career — in quantum physics, no less. After graduating from Sonoma Valley — to no one’s surprise, he was the class valedictorian — Marcus went on to Stanford, from where he graduated in 1984; then to Harvard, where he got his doctorate in 1990. He taught first at Harvard, then at Stanford — and in 2011 won a coveted chair at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, perhaps the pre-eminent place for a quantum physicist to land in the known universe, a fact that even Marcus finds astonishing.

Charlie Marcus’s TEDx Talk

Marcus gave a TEDx lecture at Caltech in 2011, on the topic of Nanoelectronics and Quantum Computation.

See the video here.

After describing transistors as “little switches turned on or off by electricity,” which is elementary physics by any high school student’s standards, Marcus then adds that “quantum mechanics says that the switch can be both on and off simultaneously.”

With nods to electronic music and Schrodinger’s Cat, Marcus glibly takes the audience from the inscrutable to the incredible, doing it in such an affable way that the listener can chuckle at the jokes without having any idea what he’s talking about.

Expect that sort of conversation next Friday, May 12, at the Barn at the Vadasz Family Vineyards, 1815 Grove St., Sonoma. More information at svgreatschools.org.

“It’s funny I live in Copenhagen now,” Marcus told the Index-Tribune this week. “This is really the epicenter of the quantum revolution — it reached its high point in the 1920s and 30s, this is where it happened.” Max Plank, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg — and now Charlie Marcus — all did their research in Copenhagen.

In general terms, quantum theory seeks to explain what happens at atomic levels; classical mechanics is unable to provide explanations for behavior seen at such small scale.

Even though quantum theory studies the very small, its impact on the world of science is proving to be enormous. Indeed, the title of Marcus’ presentation next week is “Quantum — Ideas and Futures.”

Among those futures is the application of quantum computing, which shows the potential to radically enhance the computing power of technology. “We have hope that it will show up in a new generation of tools, quantum computers — how we can build one, what we can do with them and how they will work. I think quantum science will affect the future in unimaginable ways.”

Even for such a celebrated intellect, a part of his heart remains in Sonoma. Though he left 37 years ago, and his older sister and mother have also long since left town, “I actually have a larger number of Sonoma high school friends than college friends,” said Marcus.

His wife, Claudia Goulette, was also an SVHS grad, in 1981, and they occasionally return to visit her family.

Indeed, his conversation from Copenhagen was filled with reminiscence of old friends he hopes to see — Brian Wirick and Louann Carlomagno (now married), Tim Gray, Casey Locarnini, Vince Albano, Craig Wheeler and others, and his old neighborhood around Este Madera. Aside from Knight, Marcus mentioned several other teachers — Martin Stoye, Gene Sperring, Howard Costello, David Hughes and vice-principal Bob Kruljac.

At SVHS he was also on the tennis team and during his senior year, in some sort of protest that he can’t quite recall today, a member of the swim team.

“When I told my mother I was being inducted in the Dragon Hall of Fame,’ she said, ‘You weren’t that good a tennis player!’”

Future guests have been considered — the politically-polarized Schake sisters are possibilities — but the common element is that the speakers must be products of Sonoma Valley’s education system.

“We keep our price low, and students can come for free, so it’s definitely targeted towards a local market,” said Diserens.

Perhaps too low: the $25 tickets were quickly snapped up and the first Barn Talk, next Friday May 12, is sold out. But the Barn at the Vadasz Family Vineyards only holds about 100 people, so perhaps the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation will need to find a bigger barn.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.