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‘Scientists on Trains’ Leaves the Station in Israel

The morning oration is like a normal university class: a professor, an engaging intellectual lecture and questions at the end. But the similarities between a regular college class and the new Hebrew University “Scientists on Trains” program pretty much stop there.

The program, which was launched in November, has brought a number of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s most skilled lecturers out of the classroom and onto commuter trains to give short lectures on topics ranging from scientific texts to the history of the Maccabeans and the Hanukkah story.

“The university is trying to reach out to the general public. The idea is that this is one of the responsibilities of a modern university… especially here in Israel,” said former university president and physics professor Hanoch Gottfreund, who gave the inaugural train lecture, discussing Einstein’s love letters to his student-cum-first wife, Mileva Mari.

“Students” on the trains are more eclectic than in modern classrooms, ranging from businesspeople on their way to work to uniformed soldiers returning to their military bases and families running errands.

Right now there are about two lectures a month, given in a car of an inter-city commuter train. Lectures, whose topics will change monthly, are free to passengers with regular train tickets, and passengers can choose to visit the car where the lectures are taking place. They are announced in advance through fliers and at the beginning of the train rides. Some people buy a train ticket just to hear a lecture, “while some people were totally startled” by the idea of a classroom on a train, said Isaiah Gafni, who lectured about Hanukkah.

Hebrew University spokeswoman Orit Sulitzeanu, who organized the program, said, “We weren’t sure if it would work or if it was a crazy idea.”

But “the response was beyond expectations,” Guttfreund noted, adding, “There was a lady who did not get off at her station because she did not want to miss the end of the talk.” In fact, each of the six lectures given so far has filled up an entire train car’s worth of passengers.

It was the professors who had a harder time adjusting. “It was the first time I gave a lecture speaking to an audience with their back to me,” Gottfreund said.

Though the university has several potential topics lined up for future lectures, including discussions on global warming and the statistics of the lottery, the series is still in its early phases and is being planned out only a few months at a time.

“The logistics are not simple. But what we are now planning is National Science Day,” Guttfreund said, referring to the day in March that marks Einstein’s birthday. The university is organizing several science-related lectures to be given on trains around the country on that day.

Contact Devra Ferst at [email protected]

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