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Spring 2009

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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.



Does rule learning make us human? - 20 Jan 2009

Dr Robin Murphy - UCL Psychology
It seems obvious that humans engage in complex thinking some of which is beyond the abilities of other animals. If there are rules of thinking that make us human, we do not seem to be able to describe them. Recent research has claimed to provide a clue to this problem.  Studies with human infants demonstrating acquisition of primitive grammar structures that might underlie human language suggested a unique human rule learning ability. This lecture covers some of this research, subsequent research with monkeys along with our recent experiments with rodents suggesting that rats are able to learn similar complex rules and importantly use the rules in new situations.  In animals this type of rule learning may support causal understanding.

The man who invented the concept of pi: William Jones and his circle - 22 Jan 2009

Patricia Rothman - UCL Mathematics
William Jones was important in his lifetime primarily for three things: he was the first person to use the Greek letter π in its modern sense; he had acquired such a significant archive of manuscripts that he was appointed to the Royal Society committee, to investigate the invention of calculus; and he was influential as communicator in a network of mathematicians, astronomers and natural philosophers in the early eighteenth century.

This lecture will also touch on the lives of some of the notable characters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who contributed to his story.

President Obama and America in the World: from inauguration to action - 27 Jan 2009

Professor Philippe Sands - UCL Laws
The challenges and opportunities facing the 44th President of the United States, in foreign affairs and beyond.

The Reception of Homer in Byzantium - 29 Jan 2009

Dr Antony Makrinos - UCL Greek & Latin
Homer has always been an influential poet. The texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey have been part of people’s entertainment and education for years from antiquity to Roman times. However, during the Byzantine times, the Christians study their own “classical” writers. But does this mean that the Homeric texts were not favourably received and lost their educational importance in Byzantine classrooms? Scholars disagree on the nature of the role the Homeric texts played in Byzantine education. The lecture will explore the issue drawing on the case of Eustathius Homeric Commentaries and the use of allegorical interpretation for the teaching of Homer to a Christian audience. 

Photodynamic Therapy: using light in a gentle approach to cancer therapy by remote control - 3 Feb 2009

Professor Stephen Bown - UCL National Medical Laser Centre
The days of heroic surgery for cancer are receding. As imaging techniques get more sophisticated, the challenges are first to define the true extent of disease and then to ask if the tumour can be destroyed where it arises in such a way that the treated area heals without further intervention and with minimal general upset to the patient. Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) is a technique that involves giving the patient a special drug, which is subsequently activated by light, usually from a laser. It is particularly exciting as the cosmetic and functional results are outstanding and for internal organs, it can be applied by “remote control” – light delivered under image guidance by laser fibres passed through needles - no need for open surgery.

What better way to get rid of nasty bits of tissue without upsetting all the nice bits!

“Yes, but how do you feel?” Wellbeing for the 21st century - 5 Feb 2009 

Professor Nick Tyler - UCL Civil & Environmental Engineering

Wellbeing is a term used in the late twentieth century to denote a sense of a person’s general good feeling about their existence. This is more than just their health or their economic circumstances – although both are involved – and includes their happiness, contentment with their lot, sense that they can achieve as much or as little as they wish and much more. However, it is also a kind of chimera, who defines “well” and what are their terms of reference? And isn’t there a sense of paternalism about it – wellbeing in ‘my’ terms rather than ‘yours’ – that makes it difficult to see it as a term that could work across cultures, ages, places or times?

This lecture sets out to match an engineering revolution, which started quite close to UCL 200 years ago, with the consequent questions about contentment and wellbeing. This revolution started when Richard Trevithick showed that it was possible to transform motion from the limits afforded by muscle power to the opportunities presented by mechanical power, by showing that a steam locomotive could pull a wagon full of people around a circular track. Although it took another 20 years for the first passenger-carrying railway to emerge, Trevithick unwittingly sparked a change in perceptions about time and space.

How does the way we perceive the space around us affect our ability to take advantage of the opportunity to exercise our sense of wellbeing – whether that involves travelling or staying where we are? How does that perception affect the way we design the environment around us? How can we define environmental objectives which could help to maintain the good side of wellbeing while avoiding the paternalism so that we can inspire a truly intercultural approach to feeling better about the world?

Still no black in the union jack - 10 Feb 2009 

Dr Caroline Bressey - UCL Geography

Questions of what it means to be British are currently central to political debate.  Within these discussions public history and geographies of heritage remain important and contested sites.  However, the history of Black and Asian people in Britain remains marginalised within academic institutions and popular debate.  This lecture will outline the dangers of disregarding these histories, and the impact it has on who does - and who does not - belong in Britain.


The Evolution of Evolution: Using synthetic systems to explain natural ones - 12 Feb 2009

Dr Beau Lotto - UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, Visual Science

The second law of thermodynamics states that a natural system will with time become increasingly random. There are, however, two kinds of natural system: those that follow this law and those that don’t. Living systems are of the second kind. Unlike the waves on the surface of the North Sea or an avalanche tumbling down the side of Ben Nevis, living structures ‘have a purpose’ … to survive, to invert the relentless move towards randomness – at least for a while. The brain is arguably the most complicated of these and thus one of the most difficult to describe. What is more, if we are to explain the brain we must first understand the code hidden in its described structure. Here, in celebration of Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’, we will talk about what this code might be and how it evolved … but not in the real world. Instead we will talk about the evolution of virtual agents in synthetic worlds and how this may help explain how natural brains halt the perpetual walk to randomness.

Modelling how water vapour absorbs light - 24 Feb 2009

Professor Jonathan Tennyson - UCL Physics & Astronomy

Water vapour dominates the absorption of sunlight by the earth's atmosphere and is the major greenhouse gas. Water is also the third most common molecule in the Universe where it plays an important role in many places from the chemistry of the interstellar medium to the atmospheres of cool stars; detection of water is often taken to be a key first step to detecting life outside our solar system. Given that water is a small and seemingly simple molecule, the way it absorbs and emits light is surprisingly complicated. The lecture will describe some of the issues and how first principles quantum mechanical calculations are now starting to resolve these problems. The results of these calculations are being used for a wide variety of problems including models of the earth's atmosphere and the recent detection of water in an extra-solar planet.

Children and the environment: independence or obesity? - 26 Feb 2009

Professor Roger Mackett - UCL Centre for Transport Studies

Modern parents face a dilemma: do they let their children go out where they risk being run over or abducted, or do they keep them indoors where they risk becoming obese? This lecture will explore this dilemma using findings from inter-disciplinary research carried out at UCL. This has involved fitting children with GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) monitors and activity monitors, and asking them to complete diaries and questionnaires. It will be shown that preventing children from going out independently may deprive them of the opportunity to gain important experience by exploring the local environment and establishing social networks.

Physiology on top of the world - Xtreme Everest - 3 March 2009

Dr Mike Grocott (UCL Medicine)

Caudwell Xtreme Everest (CXE) is a large, healthy volunteer field study investigating human adaptation to environmental hypoxia. CXE is a project of the Centre for Altitude Space and Extreme Environment Medicine (CASE Medicine) at University College London.  The aim of CASE Medicine is to investigate variability in human adaptation to low oxygen levels (hypoxia) in order to improve understanding of how critically ill patients deal with hypoxia. During April and May 2007 more than 200 individuals were studied as they were progressively exposed to hypobaric hypoxia on the trek to Everest Base Camp at 5,300m. Most of these individuals were volunteers who gave up their holidays to be participants in the study. The remainder was comprised of doctors and scientists, 15 of whom continued the studies as they ascended up to 8,000m.  Eight of these investigators reached the summit of Everest and on their descent took the first measurement of arterial oxygen levels above 8,000m.  A series of complex physiological measurements were taken in London before departure, in four laboratories in Nepal on the ascent to Everest Base Camp, and in two laboratories high on Mount Everest. The next few years will see whether this new approach to investigating the pathogenesis of critical illness bears fruit.

The future of Brazil - 5 March 2009

Professor Nicola Miller (UCL History)

The old joke about Brazil is that it is the country of the future, and always will be.  There are signs, however, that the Brazilian economy is finally achieving the stability necessary for it to fulfil its potential.  What is particularly intriguing is that this has happened under the leadership of Lula, the former print-worker, union leader and founder of the innovative Workers’ Party, who is now in his second term as elected president of Brazil.  To what extent is it possible for a radical politician to deliver on commitments to the poor in the context of a global neo-liberal agenda?

Sorry, can you say that again..? - 10 March 2009

Professor Valerie Hazan (UCL Speech Hearing an Phonetic Sciences)

The ability to speak clearly is a definite advantage in many situations, such as when interacting with foreign speakers or individuals with a hearing loss. Some individuals seem to be inherently clearer than others, and we are all able to ‘clarify’ our speech when speaking to young children. However, elucidating what exactly makes a speaker easy to understand is not a trivial matter. I will present some recent work which has addressed this question and will consider whether it is possible to make a speaker clearer by electronically manipulating their speech.

One person households - a resource time bomb? - 12 March 2009

Dr Joanna Williams (UCL Bartlett School of Planning)

In the western world there is a trend towards the growth of small households, especially one-person households. In resource terms, one-person households are likely to consume more land, energy, goods and materials per person than those living in larger households. Thus an increase in one-person households is likely to dramatically accelerate domestic consumption of resources over the next twenty years. This lecture demonstrates the scale of the problem internationally and in the UK.  It also investigates innovative solutions to the problem in the UK.

Mimicking tissue growth: towards customised, while-you-wait tissue fabrication - 17 March 2009

Professor Robert Brown (UCL Orthopaedics & Musculosk. Science)

Tissue engineering began to stir European public hopes 15 to 20 years ago around the simple idea that culture of tissue-forming cells in shaped, synthetic materials could produce new, functional tissues to replace bodily decay and damage.  The trouble is that despite many repetitions, ‘successes’ towards that dream are few and modest.  This led to a route-map-modification, increasingly dependent on special stem cells, and embryology, where the vision is to persuade such cells to automatically from the tissues we need, as and where they are needed; that is, Regenerative Medicine.    Once scaled up for practical use, this in effect becomes a form of cell/tissue farming. Unfortunately, the dream has a glitch.  As we are not so good at the controls necessary for 3D cell-farming we are now in the biological long grass, reliant on innate cell behaviour rather than predictable engineering processes.  Recent work at UCL may now offer a way back, through bio mimetic engineering of the bulk fabric of tissues, but without cell-dependence.

What have the lawyers ever done for us? Law, culture and international agricultural trade - 19 March 2009

Dr Fiona Smith (UCL Laws)


This lecture will explore the relationship between culture, language and law. Lawyers have a tendency to believe that words have fixed meanings, but in fact each person’s cultural heritage affects how they interpret language. Consequently, each person might understand the words slightly differently, so words in fact have multiple meanings, rather than a single, homogenous one. This insight is very important in the context of international trade agreements where many government representatives from different cultural backgrounds attempt to draft one set of rules which will ultimately govern both developing and developed nations. Understanding the breadth of meaning can only be beneficial to developing nations in their struggle against exploitation in the international trade negotiations. 

Page last modified on 22 mar 10 16:10


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