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Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin Delivers 2009 Munushian Lecture

Who owns what you're learning has become an issue in academia and beyond
Eric Mankin
November 16, 2009 —

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Laughlin with Hsieh electrophysics chair Eun Sok Kim.
Can information be owned — much like a house, a car or a piece of land?

Yes, if the intellectual property advocates get their way, says Physics Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin. But this trend would endanger not only scientific progress, but also the ideal of freedom to inquire and learn.

Following an introduction by Hsieh Department electrophysic chair Eun Sok Kim, Laughlin delivered his thoughts to a capacity audience at the Viterbi School of Engineering this week

In a speech entitled “The Crime of Reason: And the Closing of the Scientific Mind,” — also the title of his latest book — Laughlin addressed the idea that intellectual property issues are locking up basic knowledge. In the realm of science, increasing secrecy and a lack of access means redefionition of tradition and ideal.

Laughlin presented advancements in nuclear explosives and disease organism genomics as an example. Because of security concerns, he said, these subjects had vanished from view in academic curricula.

“Who owns what you’re learning” has become an issue in education, he said. "The dark side of the information age," he said, was increasing controls "on individuals' right to learn on their own."

Laughlin spoke from experience in nuclear explosives issue as a former staff member and current consultant at the Laurence Livermore Laboratory. Now a faculty member at Stanford, Laughlin took questions from inquisitive Viterbi faculty and undergraduates following the speech.

Laughin's talk was the fourth in the annual Manushian lecture series. Hsieh Department Assistant Professor Stephen Cronin worked with Kim in facilitating the event.

The Munushian Lecture Series is supported by an endowment of the late Jack Munushian to the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering – Electrophysics. The goal is to have internationally renowned individuals with visionary perspective on the fields that impact Electrical Engineering present their latest research developments at USC.

Previous speakers in the series have included Dr. Charles H. Townes of the University of California, Berkeley, Herbert Kroemer of UC Santa Barbara, and Steven Chu, now US Secretary of Energy.