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.
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.