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Autumn 2007

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View older lunch hour lectures as streamed media files (below), or visit the UCL iTunes U site to view and download all UCL Lunch Hour lectures

UCL: The Provost's View (9 Oct 2007)

Professor Malcolm Grant (UCL President and Provost)

There is a new UCL tradition that the Provost is invited to deliver the opening lecture in the lunch-hour series every second year. This is to some extent a State of the Nation speech, but it also explores some of the key issues confronting UCL and UK higher education more generally. The external environment is changing rapidly; the effects of globalization in higher education are already being felt, and within UCL there are several major academic projects in the pipeline which will have significant impacts across the whole institution. There will be changes in our relations within London, with our partner hospitals, with the City and with international collaborators.

A Lousy Tale of the Naked Ape (11 Oct 2007)

Professor Robin Weiss (UCL Immunology and Molecular Pathology)

Although human DNA is 98% similar to that of the chimpanzee, the infections we catch are 80% different. Some pathogens have co-evolved with the host since chimpanzees and hominids diverged, but most are new acquisitions that we have picked up as humans spread across the world. In fact, pandemic infections like smallpox and influenza only date from the last 12,000 years or so after we adopted settled farming communities and later developed large colonies known as cities. Does the history of infectious diseases help to predict future epidemics? I shall illustrate my story with examples of viruses and ectoparasites.

Science in an age of delusions some examples from scientific fraud, quackery, religion and university politics (16 Oct 2007)

Professor David Colquhoun (UCL Pharmacology)
We have seen a progressive erosion of the enlightenment values which form the very basis of science. The fashion for delusional thinking is already widespread among the general public and politicians. It has penetrated even into universities as power inexorably moves from academics to managers. Francis Wheen has suggested that this step backward towards the dark ages started to become fashionable in about 1979. The more interesting question is, when will it end?

Physical fitness: population trends and why they matter (18 Oct 2007)

Professor Bruce Lynn (UCL Physiology)
Fitness, particularly aerobic (endurance) fitness, is an excellent predictor of future health. As a population, are we getting less fit as we get more fat? What information we have indicates just this, but the information is fragmentary. How easy would it be to hold a regular national fitness survey? Why is it worth trying to do this? Certainly it is a necessary requirement for setting national fitness targets. And maybe knowing the true situation would concentrate minds and help us get, for example, more encouragement of stair use and decent urban networks of cycle paths.

How Russia Really Works (23 October 2007)

Dr Alena Ledeneva (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies)

In a 1939 broadcast, Churchill told his audience: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Communism has long gone but is Russia becoming more transparent? My recent book How Russia Really Works presents a new approach in answering this question. Rather than looking at what does not work in Russia and why, I concentrate on what does work and how. By analysing post-Soviet politics and business from the perspective of informal practices, I discover rarely visible forms of activity and dispel a number of commonly held stereotypes about corruption and illegality.

Sound-effects in Homer (25 Oct 2007)

Dr Stephen Stone (UCL Greek and Latin)

Homer was an oral poet. When he sang the Iliad and Odyssey he relied on his memory rather than a written text. This method of producing poetry explains some features of Homeric epic, e.g. repetition, alliteration, metrical patterns. But does it mean that Homer never accommodates sound to sense in the way Virgil does with e.g. slow spondaic lines to imitate slowness, quick dactylic ones to imitate speed, repetition of ‘s’ for hissing snakes and so on? There is some dispute among scholars on the extent, if at all, Homer consciously strove to create with his words and rhythms sound-effects relevant to the sense. This lecture, with handouts containing both Homer’s Greek and English translations, will explore the issue.

Symmetry and the Monster (30 Oct 2007)

Professor Mark Ronan (UCL Mathematics)

On 30th May 1830 a young Frenchman named Évariste Galois lay dying in a field outside Paris, fatally wounded in a duel. The previous night, he wrote a letter he knew would be his last, summarizing his mathematical work. Galois was just 20, but his use of symmetry to study equations has made him immortal. He started something that led eventually to the basic building blocks of symmetry. The quest to find them all produced a beautiful and mysterious object that lives in 196,884 dimensions, and may be connected with the very fabric of our universe. It is called the Monster.

Victims or Saviours – Can Plants Protect Us against Global Warming? (1 Nov 2007)

Dr Astrid Wingler (UCL Biology)

Plants produce the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat. By fixing carbon dioxide, they dampen the current rise in carbon dioxide concentration and thereby global warming. To predict future changes, it is important to investigate how plants are affected by elevated carbon dioxide concentrations and by increased temperatures. Can enhanced plant growth counteract global warming or will global warming lead to the extinction of plants species? Can we offset our carbon emissions by planting trees or is it better to invest in new technologies for the production of biofuels? These and similar questions will be addressed in the lecture.

The ‘Steam Intellect Society’ and the founders of UCL (13 Nove 2007)

Professor Rosemary Ashton (UCL English Language and Literature)

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, caricatured as the ‘Steam Intellect Society’ in Thomas Love Peacock’s comic novel Crotchet Castle (1831), was founded in 1826 by Henry Brougham and a group of influential whig and radical friends, many of whom were involved in establishing UCL at the same time, among them James Mill, Zachary Macaulay, Lord John Russell, George Birkbeck. The Society exploited recent advances in printing technology and distribution to publish cheap, entertaining, informative works for the masses. How did it do this? How successful was it in its aims? What further connections are there to the early years of UCL?

Creation and Evolution in the Universe: from the vast simplicity of pure energy to the tiny complexity of the human brain (15 Nov 2007)

Dr Francisco Diego (UCL Physics and Astronomy)

How old is the Universe? Is there an eternal creator? The human mind has always faced the deep mysteries of existence, from primitive myths and religious beliefs to the discoveries of modern science. The Universe appears to be evolving from a distant primordial event. The broad perspective of a linear time line will illustrate how essential was that seemingly eternal evolution, for the Universe to be able to assemble its most complex structure: a bio-chemical organism that despite its physical insignificance, has been able to show awareness and emotions and to question and explore the very Universe that created it.

Too many men - a timebomb for China? (20 Nov 2007)

Dr Therese Hesketh (UCL International Child Health Unit)

A combination of traditional preference for male offspring, easy access to sex selective technologies and the One Child Policy has led to very abnormal sex ratios in China. Over the next 20 years it is estimated that 12-15% of all young men in mainland China will remain single and will be unable to have families. The overwhelming majority of them will be of low socio-economic class. This talk will discuss the impact of this phenomenon. It will emphasise concerns about the marginalisation of these young men in society, leading to antisocial behaviour and violence, and threatening societal stability and security.

Using people’s names to infer their origins – implications for academia, government and commerce (22 Nov 2007)

Professor Richard Webber (UCL Geography)

Passing a list of names through an expert system one can now establish the ancestral origins of their bearers, often right down to specific towns. Coding names on telephone files and electoral registers by their origins reveals interesting insights on migration patterns both within and between countries. By coding the names of their service users government organisations now monitor the effectiveness of their diversity policies and commercial organisations establish which minorities buy which products and services. This lecture summarises the methods used to infer origins from names and presents research findings from a number of research areas to which they have been applied.

Fair health: health inequities within and between countries - a global challenge (27 Nov 2007)

Professor Sir Michael Marmot (UCL Epidemiology and Public Health)

The 20th century has seen impressive gains in health and life expectancy in many parts of the world. But these improvements are unequally distributed. In every country, poor people and those from socially disadvantaged groups get sicker and die sooner than people in more privileged social positions. Not only is there a gap in health between the best off and the worst off in society, there is a gradient in health running between them. This social gradient can be linked clearly to social and economic conditions.

The Commission on Social Determinants of Health was set up by the World Health Organisation to collate global evidence, raise societal debate and recommend policies with the goal of improving health of the world'smost vulnerable people. This lecture will review the compelling case for action.

How the zebra got its stripes - getting to the heart of pattern formation  (29 Nov 2007)

Dr Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry)

To a chemist, one of the many intriguing features of biology is the exquisite ability of biological systems to control pattern formation - from the stripes on the side of a zebra, to the feathers of birds, and the extraordinary silicate architectures of diatoms, biological systems display spectacular examples of structural control across a wide range of length scales. To do this organisms have harnessed chemical processes in a remarkable way. In this lecture I will use a number of exocharmic chemical reactions to illustrate these ideas. If all goes well, we may also bring an inorganic system to life. No mention will be made to the periodic table and no chemical background is necessary.

Law and the Millennium Development Goals: Like Water in Marriage? (4 Dec 2007)

Professor William Twining (UCL Laws)

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are an important part of the campaign “to make poverty history”. What has law to do with this, except perhaps to serve as a brake on development? What can law contribute to universal primary education, infant mortality, clean water, or adult literacy? At first sight, not much. This lecture will examine obvious and not-so-obvious ways in which law may assist or frustrate the MDGs with special reference to poverty reduction strategies in Uganda and Tanzania.

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