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Lunch Hour Lectures - Spring 2008

Lunch Hour Lectures - Spring 2008


VINTAGE PODCASTS - Lunch Hour Lectures - Spring 2008

UCL's Lunch Hour Lecture Series is an opportunity for anyone to sample the exceptional research work taking place at the university, in bite-size chunks. Speakers are drawn from across UCL and lectures frequently showcase new research and recent academic publications. Lunch Hour Lectures require no pre-booking, are free to attend and are open to anyone on a first-come, first-served basis.

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Podcast Episodes

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Episode 1: The Return of Syphilis

Between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, syphilis had essentially been eradicated in the UK. There is now an outbreak of syphilis with more diagnoses each year than at any time since the 1940s. This lecture will outline the nature of syphilis and its importance. Why is syphilis still so common worldwide when it is easy to diagnose and cure? How was syphilis eradicated in the UK? Why did it return and what does this say about the sexual health of the UK?

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Episode 2: Reconstructing a Face After Cancer Surgery

Cancer of the mouth and face affects our swallowing, our speech and more importantly our self-perception and self-esteem. Therefore, reconstructive surgery of the mouth and face touches on the deepest human feelings about identity. The surgery offers the promise of allowing patients to eat, drink and communicate again through the wide variety of facial expressions and mannerisms that most people take for granted. In a ten-hour procedure, the patient’s cancer will be removed, and a new facial “flap” will be attached to the recipient’s blood vessels and nerves. The tissues are matched for colour and type and function. In the procedure the patient’s compliance and contribution to recovery is as important as the surgery itself.

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Episode 3: Differences in cognitive abilities between the sexes

To even suggest there are sex differences in cognitive abilities is anathema to many. Academics have been sacked for suggesting that there may be group differences in general or specific intelligence. This paper examines estimated intelligence showing evidence from 25 studies in as many countries, that females tend to give significantly lower estimates than males, around five IQ points. This coincides with current estimates of the actual difference in IQ scores. The many implications of this research area will be explained.

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Episode 4: Intelligent Colour

Not all colours in nature originate from pigments. Colour can also emerge if the microstructure of a material is fashioned into an optical diffraction grating. In nanotechnology, this capability of ‘structural colour’ is now within our grasp, and it is easy to imagine how it can be intelligently integrated into jewellery and artwork, vehicles and buildings. Beyond ‘static’ structural colour is a ‘dynamic’ form that could enable a full colour display where one material provides an infinite range of colours, security devices for identification and authentification, and military vehicles with active camouflage. Opportunities for intelligent colour are truly boundless.


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Episode 5: What can Venus, Mars and Titan tell us about Earth?

Several space missions of planetary exploration are currently underway, including Venus Express and Mars Express to our planetary neighbours and Cassini-Huygens to Saturn. In this talk, we will look at some of the results from these missions. Remarkably, these distant bodies can also tell us more about our own planet. Will the greenhouse effect run away here as it has at Venus, or might severe climate change happen as at Mars? Does Titan really show us what prebiotic Earth was like? We will also look at possible future space missions to these bodies.

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Episode 6: The Yin and Yang of Cellular Communication

The lecture looks at how cells in emerging multicellular organisms have evolved ways of communicating with each other. The basic ‘yes’ and ‘no’ signalling was probably mediated by release into the extracellular space of substances which were available in abundance inside the cells – purine nucleotide ATP (molecule charged with energy – excitatory Yang) and its breakdown product adenosine (molecule devoid of energy – inhibitory Yin). The lecture will use examples from current research demonstrating how this dual system of conveying information from one cell to another has been preserved during evolution. Both substances are important modulators of cellular functions still playing often opposing roles in the peripheral tissues as well as in the central nervous system.

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Episode 7: The Pleasures of Driving

Nowadays we are all very aware of some the considerable disadvantages, danger and damage caused by automobile driving. Yet people continue to drive, even when suitable alternatives exists. This talk examines some of the historical reasons as to why people like to drive, looking in particular at some of the city driving of the 1960s and 1970s, and using films like ‘The Italian Job’, ‘Duel’, ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘C’était un Rendezvous’ to explore notions of liberation, adventure, self-awareness and risk-taking. Given this history, should we be trying to restrict driving to purely essential journeys? Conversely, could it not be that driving should be reserved purely for occasions of personal pleasure?

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Episode 8: Tesla and the Art of Fugue

Although the field of ‘art and science’ – the fusion of art, science and technology – has existed for at least two decades, its validity and value are still questioned, often very forcefully, by both the artistic and scientific communities. This talk will examine some of the arguments both for and against art and science, drawing on material from Tesla, the open discussion forum on art and science at UCL Computer Science Department, and Fugue, Tesla’s first project. Perhaps some of the questions will be answered; however, it is equally likely that some new ones will be asked.

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Episode 9: Hepatitis B, a Neat Little Virus

Amongst all human pathogens, the hepatitis B virus is one of the smallest known. The virus particle itself was first described in this Medical School nearly 40 years ago, although its existence had been surmised for much longer. Not only is the virus small in physical size, its genetic information is tiny, one thousandth of that in an average bacterium. It has a fascinatingly complex lifestyle that continues to yield insights into host parasite relationships and the way in which persistent infections by some viruses have evolved to confuse the immune system. This poses problems for vaccines and for antiviral drug therapy, a conundrum now far more intricate than ever imagined.

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Episode 10: Toad meets T-Rex: The Evolution and Diversification of Frogs

Love them or loathe them, frogs have a place in popular culture, from ‘Kermit’ to ‘Toad of Toad Hall’. The short, tailless body, large head, and long legs give a profile that is vaguely humanoid, but frogs are optimised for leaping rather than walking, a locomotor strategy that has been highly successful. Amongst amphibians, their body plan is unique, prompting questions as to its origin and evolutionary history. Some of the answers may be found in the fossil record of frogs, dating back 250 million years to the very beginning of the ‘Age of Dinosaurs’.

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Episode 11: Born Black, Brown or White in Today's Britain: Does it really matter?

People from certain ethnic minority groups living in the UK are at increased risk of disease and death compared with the majority population, but the reasons for these patterns are not known. It is also not clear at what point during life such differences begin to appear – could this be as early as childhood or even infancy? This lecture looks at the origins of ethnic differences in health – are they genetic, behavioural, or socio-environmental?

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Episode 12: The Making of Stars and Planets

Stars are formed from the interstellar medium and yet throughout their lifetime they feed material back into it. The interaction and exchange between the stars and the interstellar medium is therefore vital to a proper understanding of the mechanisms that drive our universe. Most stars are mainly hydrogen and are very hot. The interstellar medium on the other hand is usually cold, dusty and made up of hundreds of different atomic and molecular species. A complex chemical and physical evolution must take place in the stellar environments. Astrochemistry is the subject that studies this evolution. This lecture aims at giving an overview of this relatively new subject by reviewing recent advances in astrochemistry and its relevance to other fields such as cosmology and astrobiology.

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Episode 13: The Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) Agreement: Law, Science and Globalising Markets

The SPS Agreement is one of the most innovative and controversial aspects of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This agreement uses science as a benchmark for assessing the legality of Member State regulation and has, in high profile cases such as EC Hormones and EC Biotech, been used to condemn regulatory measures as unlawful. The agreement, and the institutions which develop and apply it, walk a precarious middle line between trade and public health/environmental protection. This lecture will examine and evaluate the operation of this agreement, both before the WTO ‘courts’ and in the more co-operative setting of the SPS Committee.

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Episode 14: Lovers in Lab Coats: When Scientists Collaborate as Husband and Wife

The newlyweds George Gaylord Simpson (palaeontologist) and Anne Roe (psychologist) travelled through Venezuela on an expedition in 1938–39. The result was intellectual work unlike anything each did elsewhere in their long careers. Romantic and intimate partnerships offer fascinating case studies of collaboration in science. They produce unusual intellectual synergies. They alter life–work patterns. They simultaneously constrain and liberate. These collaborations tend to be overlooked by historians and biographers of science, leaving us with vastly inferior knowledge of science as a living, working enterprise.

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Episode 15: The Strange Case of Hart Crane and Samuel Greenberg

One of the most striking poems in the American poet Hart Crane’s first collection, ‘White Buildings’ (1926) is ‘Emblems of Conduct’. Long after Crane’s premature death in 1932, it emerged that this poem was in fact a mosaic of lines appropriated from an almost unknown New York poet called Samuel Greenberg, who had died in 1917 at the age of 23 – and whose work would probably have disappeared altogether had it not been plagiarized by Crane. This lecture will explore the nature and implications of this theft, and make a case for the long neglected work of the ill-fated Greenberg.

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Episode 16: Living Without a Language Instinct: Language, the Brain and Children With Specific Language Impairment

Language is a highly complex, specialised cognitive ability that is unique to humans. Nevertheless, most three-year-olds can talk using simple sentences. However, seven per cent of otherwise normally developing children have ‘specific language impairment’ (SLI), and many of these children have dyslexia too. SLI has a strong genetic component and for many individuals it is a life-long impairment. The long-term costs are socially, culturally, and economically high. I will present some research findings, using traditional and brain imaging techniques to explain these children’s language problems. SLI provides a unique window into the brain, how specialised systems develop, and how our findings can help children.