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NASA Space Center Scientist To Give Public Lecture at Augsburg

Aug. 28, 2000

One of NASA 's leading theoretical physicists will present an illustrated public lecture on one of history's most fascinating scientific figures on Thursday, Sept. 14, on the campus of Augsburg College.

Dr. David Stern, who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, will present a program on William Gilbert, a medical doctor whose research into magnetism helped open the era of modern experimental physics.

The 7 p.m. event, scheduled for Sateren Auditorium in the Music Hall, will be open to the public at no charge.

Stern's lecture on Gilbert, who was a distinguished English doctor, president of the Royal College of Physicians, and personal physician to Queen Elizabeth I, falls on the 400th anniversary year of when Gilbert published the first scientific study on magnetism.

Gilbert was the first to publicly suggest that the Earth itself is a giant magnet, and (along with Galileo a few decades later) he helped open the era of modern experimental physics with his research.

"Stern is a passionate and renowned historian of the sciences that are related to NASA's space efforts," noted Dr. Mark Engebretson, chair of the Augsburg Physics Department and coordinator for Stern's visit. "Thus, his talk will be one that not only will be of interest to scientists, but also to humanists and especially to historians."

Gilbert first set out around 1581 to find all he could about magnetism and, in the process, began studying other types of attraction. He was intrigued by the attraction of chaff and other light objects to certain materials after they were lightly rubbed with cloth or fur. One such substance was amber -- which is fossilized pine pitch and called elektron in Greek. Gilbert therefore named this attraction "electrick force" from which our words "electricity," "electron," and "electronics" were later derived.

He also studied how this attraction differed from magnetic attraction and also puzzled over things like the attraction of droplets of water to one another (now credited to surface tension). Gilbert guessed that the reason a compass needle pointed north was that the Earth itself was a giant magnet, and he published his findings in the book "De Magnete," written in Latin. His claim that the Earth was not the immovable center of the universe, and his strong support of the theory of Copernicus were, in some circles, considered heresy.

Today, the book stands as a benchmark on the boundary between mystical medieval science and the modern observational approach.

In addition to his public lecture, Stern also will speak to members of Augsburg's Space Physics class as part of his visit to the College.