The University of Omniscience is a series of public science lectures launched in Hungary about 3 years ago. It recently celebrated its 100th lectures and is generally thought to be a sweeping success. The lectures also go out on public television, schools stage contests linked to them, and books are published. The man behind the lectures is Norbert Kroo, Secretary General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
"A similar sequence of lectures was organised in France at Sorbonne. They had one lecture a day for a year and it was for a general public, where entrance was free. A colleague of mine came to me three years ago, asking whether the Academy would be willing to start something similar. My first reaction was that one lecture a day was not feasible for us but if we held one lecture a week with television and radio broadcasting, it would be a good idea and if the financial backup of such an event could be found, then the intellectual part would be secured by the Academy of Sciences. So what I did was form a small group of people from various sciences - life, natural, humanities, and social - and I charged them with working out the sequence of lectures, find appropriate lecturers and be responsible for it."
How do you choose the themes?
"They select them. The first group at the beginning was connected with life. The second one was connected with basic ideas of science, starting with my lecture on the limits of physical knowledge. After that, the main conception was to find good lecturers. We considered that to be more important than to group the lectures, one after the other, on a logical sequence. The concept of this year is that this is the last semester of the three years - the sixth semester - and this is the year of physics and therefore there should be more lectures in physics than before.
"I am holding the last lecture, on July 6, and I'm going to speak about light as a messenger, which helps mankind collect most of the information that we collect from our surroundings. It will include information about the cosmos, everyday life events, about the micro-world, and even life. So what I will try to do in the last lecture of the three years is to 'put an umbrella' over what has been said up to now. It will, of course, have an outlook at the end on what I am expecting from the future."
What relationship do Hungarians have to science?
"To my great surprise, their interest is much higher than I expected. From the very beginning, there has been a stable attendance. Of course, we continuously monitor how many people view it on TV and whenever we discover that in some fields the interest decreases then we immediately try to correct it. That's probably the reason why we have up to now succeeded to keep society's enthusiasm on the same level as it was shortly after the start."
What is the secret of its success?
"It is something that I can't even understand myself. There might be many reasons. One could be that the average Hungarian citizen still admires science. The second reason could be connected with education. My experience is that the average Hungarian family pays more attention to the education of their children than elsewhere. Hungarian parents have learned the hard fact that anything can be taken from them except what they have in their minds. Another factor could be the Hungarian language. Although it is a very difficult language, it is very logical and those who speak it naturally think logically. Science is built on logical thinking. So this can be another reason for the relatively higher affinity of the Hungarian people for science."