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Top five lectures this week (November 29–December 5, 2012)

Take a break from bar-hopping and learn something, for goodness’ sake!

Illustration: Andy Forshaw
Your typical urbanite might wait until the holiday season is over to stimulate their grey matter, but why wait until you've fried more synapses on New Year's Eve? A clutch of talks this week—from luminaries like David Byrne and stalwart series like Intelligence Squared—should furnish you with enough scintillating chat to get through every party until 2013.

The Society for the Advancement of Social Studies (SASS): A Religious Experience

Critics' pick

This monthly lecture series is designed to both entertain and enlighten. In an evening likely to skew more toward irreverence than piety, three speakers will hold forth on the subject of religion. Brooklyn Brainery cofounder Jonathan Soma lectures on how the Bible came to be; comedian Chris Hedick takes Scientology by the horns; and Yeshiva University Museum assistant curator Zachary Levine educates on unusual artifacts—such as an early 20th-century greeting card that satirizes Tsar Nicholas of Russia—and oddities from Jewish history.

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Public Assembly, Williamsburg Tue Dec 4 at 7pm; free.

“The Art of Stealing Art”

Critics' pick

For almost as long as art has existed, there have been those who’ve tried to make off with it. In this presentation, ARTNews editor and publisher Milton Esterow discusses legendary thefts, such as the 1911 heist of that sly vixen Mona Lisa. Prepare to be captivated as Esterow tells true tales of active burglars the Balkan Bandits, who have artfully lifted works by Degas, Van Gogh and Monet in the last decade, and hear about the still-unsolved 1990 Gardner heist, in which 12 masterpieces were pinched in one night from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

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92nd Street Y, Upper East Side Thu Nov 29 at 8:15pm; $15–$34.

“Brain on Fire: A Conversation Between a Writer Who Lost Her Mind and a Neuroscientist Who Can’t Believe She Got It Back”

Critics' pick

Susannah Cahalan woke up one day in an unfamiliar hospital room, unable to move or speak, with no recollection of the psychosis and violent behavior caused by a rare autoimmune disease in which her body was attacking her brain. The fast-moving illness, thought to be the cause of “demonic possession” throughout history, overwhelmed Cahalan in just a few short weeks, and the result could have been a lifetime of institutionalization or possibly even death. The newly diagnosed ailment and the last-minute intervention that saved her are the subjects of her memoir, Brain on Fire, as well as this talk between Cahalan—now a writer for the New York Post—and neuroscience graduate student Carl Schoonover.

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Observatory, Gowanus Until Thu Nov 29

Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates: Science Refutes God

Critics' pick

If debate were a sport, the IQ2 series—with its heady roster of participants—would be the major leagues. The fundamental issue of evolution versus creation takes center stage as heavy hitters from both teams attempt to answer the unanswerable, like why we’re here and how we came to be. Hurling hard facts on science’s side are theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss and Skeptic magazine founder Michael Shermer, while MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering professor Ian Hutchinson and author Dinesh D’Souza swing for the man upstairs. No matter what side you’re rooting for, you’ll want to get your contentious existence to this exchange.

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Merkin Concert Hall, Upper West Side Wed Dec 5 at 6:45pm; $40, students $12.

Music and Copyright in the Digital Era: David Byrne in Conversation with Chris Ruen

Critics' pick

Back in the early aughts, CD-burning software had the music industry up in arms like a mob of pitchfork-wielding villagers. While services like Spotify and Rdio have rendered pirated discs all but worthless, copyright issues in the recording industry seem to be here to stay, and there’s no one better equipped to tackle the topic than Renaissance man David Byrne. On Wednesday, music lovers can expect an earful when the former Talking Head converses with Chris Ruen, a journalist and the author of Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity. Expect to hear Byrne drop pearls of wisdom from his recently released book, How Music Works, which explores the art form as a pattern of adaptations and responses to a changing world.

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New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Midtown West Wed Dec 5 at 7pm; sold out.

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