Past Meetings of the UCL Science Society

19th November 2019: Dr Lena Ciric, Associate Professor in Environmental Engineering

(Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering University College London)

Can we force the genie back into the bottle? Remediating the environment of antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is a 21st century emergency. Diseases easily treatable with antibiotics until recently are, once again, life threatening. In this new hyper-connected world, it is impossible to contain infectious disease. Overuse of antibiotics in the past decades has led to resistance becoming ubiquitous in the environment which has contributed to the global resistance crisis. A coordinated global effort is required to tackle this problem which will address many factors including diagnostics, prescribing practice, use of antibiotics in agriculture and better sanitation. However, the sanitation and water treatment technologies used today were not designed with antibiotic resistance in mind.

19th June 2019: Dr Ziri Younsi, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL.


Summer meeting: Dr Ziri Younsi: 'The edge of space and time: seeing black holes'.

On the 10th of April 2019 the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration presented the first image of a supermassive black hole. Prior to this image, evidence for the existence of black holes, whilst compelling, was indirect. The presence of an event horizon, within which not even light can escape, prohibits us from "seeing" the black hole, but its tremendous gravity influences nearby matter and light, warping space and time in its vicinity. In this talk I will discuss the science of imaging black holes, how we were able to see the invisible and produce the now famous image of M87's black hole, the implications of this result, and what the future holds for the EHT collaboration and event horizon-scale imaging of black holes.

21st May 2019: Dr Gabriel Galea.

(Faculty Population Health Science, GOSH, ICH UCL)

The forces that shape us: How do embryos build their spinal cord? AGM precedes the talk.

Mammalian embryos undergo origami-like folding to sculpt their rudimentary tissues into organs. Hundreds of genes are known to be required for normal embryo development, but how these genes cooperate to cause physical changes in embryo shape remains largely unknown. We apply engineering-inspired techniques to study how embryonic cells generate mechanical forces necessary to fold their tissues into the tube-like precursor of our brain & spinal cord. When this tube does not form correctly the result is severe birth defects, including spina bifida, which continue to affect approximately 1 in every 1,000 pregnancies. Mice develop spina bifida similarly to humans & we are able to culture mouse embryos outside of the mother in order to microscopically visualise their development using advanced microscopy. This allows us to compare mechanical forces generated by their cells during normal versus faulty tube formation, which will help us better predict and ultimately prevent spina bifida.

11th March 2019: Prof Frances Edwards, Professor of Neurodegeneration

(Department of Neuroscience Physiology and Pharmacology, University College London)

"Alzheimer's disease; from mouse to man?"

Anyone who has witnessed the effects of Alzheimer’s disease will realise the urgency of preventing the clinical onset of this devastating and all too common condition. However, so far, understanding of the cause or the progression of the disease is limited and, while a few drugs are available that mitigate the symptoms in some people, no treatments are available that prevent the ongoing progression, from the relatively late stage at which the disease is currently diagnosed. This talk will give a basic map of what we know of the pathological progression of Alzheimer’s disease and its causes in man. I will then go on to discuss how we try to model the disease in mice and the advantages and disadvantages of these models and how we might aim to improve them. I will touch on the areas of disease that can be studied in mice and man, how we try to bring this information together and what that tells us. Finally I will present a new hypothesis that will shortly be published in Trends in the Neurosciences in which I try to connect the dots of all the focussed studies to present a coherent time line of how the different pathologies of Alzheimer’s disease might be connected and why the cognitive deterioration only reaches a level that can be diagnosed after decades of disease progression.

30th January 2019: Dr Chris Bierley, Associate Professor in Climate Science

(UCL Dept. of Geography, University College London,)

Human exposure to temperature changes above preindustrial (in its strict sense).

The ambition of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to “well below 2oC above preindustrial”. The recent IPCC Special Report analyses the advantages and pathways to make that happen. There has been an academic discussion about the precise definition of the preindustrial baseline. In this talk, I will describe the creation of a temperature dataset that has been adjusted to the strictest definition of the preindustrial. I will explore the spatial pattern of warming seen in this dataset and how the relate to population distributions. I was estimate the implication of urbanisation on the temperature to which we are exposed. Then using a climate-economic model, I will demonstrate how even these seemingly pedantic arguments over the definition of the preindustrial can have a social justice and equity dimensions.

18th October 2018: Prof Tarit Mukhopadhyay

(Dept. Biochemical Engineering, UCL. Senior Lecturer.)

Meeting the Global Health challenge with vaccines at 15cents per dose

Vaccines are the most successful public health initiative of the 20th century. Today, vaccine supply and affordability are the two key issues that limit our ability to eradicate disease, reach immunization goals, and respond to epidemics. Many vaccines use manufacturing processes that are 50-60 years old and have resulted in supply interruptions in the UK and developing nations. This investment will create tools and novel manufacturing technologies that will modernize vaccine manufacturing processes that were established in the last century, such that these life-saving medicines are available to all, irrespective of economic circumstance. Hear Tarit here: Tarit is Chair of the Vaccine Development Working Group for the UK Vaccine Network and was recently promoted to Professor in recognition for his leadership of vaccine bioprocessing research and teaching agendas, leadership of the Gates Foundation ULTRA grant and the new EPSRC Vaccine Manufacturing Research Hub. Tarit is also responsible for co-ordination of all vaccine related teaching activities across the Department and at the Faculty of Engineering. As part of the Engineering Challenges course, students are required to consider the manufacture of a low-cost vaccine and its delivery, distribution and financing. He also delivers a series of lectures to MEng and Msc students regarding the latest advanced in vaccine technology as well as the ethics and economics of vaccine development.

10th July 2018: Prof Shamshad Cockcroft. Professor of Cell Physiology. Lipids and Signalling

(UCL. )

UCL Science Society Summer meeting: Phosphoinositides: Tiny lipids with Giant impact on Cell Regulation

Phosphoinositides (PPIs) make up only a fraction of cellular lipids, yet they control almost all aspects of a cell’s life. These lipids gained tremendous research interest as sources of plasma membrane signalling molecules in the 1980’s. More recently, a wide range of biological processes, regulated by phosphoinositides, have been identified, turning these lipids into one of the universal signalling entities in eukaryotic cells. Phosphoinositides regulate organelle biology, ion channels, cell movement, autophagy, endocytosis, phagocytosis, exocytosis and much more. As expected for such pleiotropic regulators, derangements of phosphoinositide metabolism is responsible for a number of diseases ranging from rare genetic disorders to the most common ones such as cancer and diabetes. One of the ubiquitous signalling pathways is the activation of the enzyme, phospholipase C that breaks down the lipid at the plasma membrane. To replace the lipid, its synthesis takes place at the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), an intracellular compartment. How the water-hating lipid is moved from the ER to the plasma membrane has been an enigma. One of the key advances in the last five years is the identification of special class of proteins, the lipid transporters, which facilitate this process. Current ideas suggest that the ER and the plasma membrane come into close contact to allow rapid lipid exchange.

17th May 2018: Prof Sue Hamilton, Director UCl Inst of Archaeology.

(UCL Institute of Archaeology. )

AGM & talk:The statue period archaeology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), AD 1200-1600: monumentality, environmental change, resilience and living heritage.

The statue period archaeology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), AD 1200-1600: monumentality, environmental change, resilience and living heritage Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is a small, remote, volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean, some 2500 km from its nearest neighbour and 4000km from the nearest mainland (Chile). Its extreme isolation has governed its past and ongoing existence. Myths and enigmas of Rapa Nui have been generated by the records of early explorers, folk memories surviving from a population that had declined to c.250 persons by 1915, by sensationalised concepts of self-induced eco-disaster, and by a public fascination with with the ‘collapse’ of its iconic tradition of colossal statue construction. Today, Rapa Nui’s population of c.5000 people gains its main economic stream from heritage tourism. It is faced with highly challenging issues of sustaining a UNESCO designated heritage landscape that is undergoing massive physical erosion. The UCL Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project considers these issues on a landscape scale. Rapa Nui’s archaeological past, and current living heritage have complex social, ideological and ecological interfaces that need to be understood and addressed on an island-wide scale.

27th February 2018: Prof Geraint Rees. Dean of the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences

(UCL. )

The Conscious Phenotype

The conscious phenotype Consciousness is central to the human condition, furnishing us with phenomenal awareness of the external world and the ability to reflect upon our own thoughts and experiences. Almost half our communication concerns the contents of our thoughts and experiences. The shared language we use to do this obscures the recent realization that there is substantial variability in how different people experience the same physical environment. Moreover, key aspects of this variability in conscious experience are heritable, suggesting a conscious phenotype with adaptive significance. In this talk I will explore the nature of individual differences in conscious perception and their neural basis, focusing on both structure and function of the human brain.

27th February 2018: Prof Geraint Rees


27th February 2018

There is no need to book for lecture only. Dinner bookings are closed as no places remain, hence the notice that advanced bookings are closed. The lecture is free and open to all.

12th December 2017: Prof Jason Rihel


“Sleep—From Aristotle to Zebrafish”.

Sleep is a deeply conserved phenomenon, yet the mechanisms that regulate sleep are still being uncovered. Over the past decade, we have leveraged the genetic facility and optical transparency of the larval zebrafish to map molecular and neuronal substrates that control the timing and duration of sleep. Like humans, zebrafish display circadian and homeostatically regulated periods of quiescence, during which the larvae are less sensitive to their environment. Furthermore, zebrafish sleep is regulated by similar genetic and neuronal systems as humans, including the hypocretin/orexin system that is lost in patients with the sleep disease, narcolepsy. Using a combination of pharmacology, genetics, and neuronal imaging, we have uncovered several additional neuropeptide signalling systems that modulate sleep’s timing relative to the light-dark cycle and duration after prolonged wakefulness. This presentation will focus on our recent work that aims to address how these neuropeptides impact neuronal circuits to orchestrate sleep drive.

24th October 2017: Prof James Croll


"How might Gower Street pavement failures help explain some fundamental problems of geology?"

How might Gower Street pavement failures help explain some fundamental problems of geology? James Croll FREng, FICE, FIStructE, FRSA Emeritus Professor of Civil Engng., UCL SUMMARY: Triggered by an attempt almost two decades ago to explain the emergence of fields of curious blisters on newly laid asphalt pavements outside my office on Gower Street, I soon found myself exploring the possibility that similar mechanics could be at work in the formation of a number of curious and imperfectly understood geomorphic features in permafrost and periglacial environments – albeit at different orders of magnitude of temporal and spatial scales. Contrary to conventional wisdom all in one way or another appear to involve cyclic heating and cooling in which the accompanying fluctuations of compression and tension loading, arising from the restraints to expansion and contraction, result in the non-recoverable deformation failures that define these geomorphic features. Recent images from space probes show very similar features on some of the outer planets and their satellites. All appear to involve one or other form of thermal ratchet failures. Driven by the conviction that very similar thermal mechanics could be at work in the motion of glaciers and ice sheets, along with some very curious familial happenstance, more recent work has focused on whether glacial and interglacial cycles of thermal loading at 20 -100ka periodicity occurring within the cycles of hot-house and ice-age periodicities of circa 120Ma, related mechanics could be helping to shape the Earth’s crust. Some of the geological evidence seemingly at odds with the predictions of the current ruling geological paradigm of plate tectonics will be reviewed and an alternative model relying upon these very long term cycles of thermal loading will be briefly outlined. It will be suggested that the evolution of the Earth’s crust might have closer links to the formation of Gower Street blisters than it does to the boiling of a bowl of porridge.

14th June 2017: Prof Philip Meredith

(Rock & Ice Physics Laboratory, Dept of Earth Sciences, UCL)

Unconventional gas extraction from shale: potential and problems

Until very recently, about two-thirds of the energy required for electricity generation in the UK was provided by hydrocarbon resources; 50% gas, 15 - 20% coal and 0% oil. But, in April 2017 the UK had its first “zero coal” day since the start of the industrial revolution. Due to a combination of indecision about the future of nuclear energy expansion and the limits on renewable energy resources, this has resulted in a push to increase natural gas production at the same time as its availability from offshore North Sea reservoirs is in decline. There is therefore pressure from both the hydrocarbon industry and government to develop production from unconventional onshore gas resources. The UK has a substantial, known resource of onshore shale gas and potentially much more that is yet to be discovered. However, onshore shale gas production is highly controversial. Some of the concerns about shale gas extraction are well-founded, and primarily based on problems encountered during rapid expansion and poor regulation of the industry in the USA. As a result, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser asked the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to establish an expert panel to review the issues and problems with shale gas extraction in the UK. The panel reported in June 2012, highlighting a number of issues and providing a set of recommendations to deal with them. Oil and gas is produced from organic carbon trapped in sediment that is subjected to increased pressure and temperatures as it becomes buried at depth in the Earth’s crust. The pressure and temperature converts the sediment into a rock; in the case of organic rich fine sediment this becomes a shale. In conventional hydrocarbon resources, the oil and gas migrates out of the shale “source” rock and into more porous “reservoir” rocks; around the UK these are primarily sandstone and chalk. The key difference with unconventional gas is that it is both produced and stored in the source rock; i.e. in shale. Gas shales can have relatively high poro

2nd May 2017: Prof Jon Agar (and AGM at 17.30 hrs)

(UCL Science and Technology Studies)

Science and the Cold War at UCL

War was an important force shaping the sciences in the twentieth century. The Cold War, from the 1940s to the 1980s, in particular, was important because as a sustained preparation for (and deterrence of) conflict, the funding of research and development was a priority. In this talk, Jon reviews how the Cold War shaped the conduct of science in general, but also looks in detail at some of the effects here at UCL. Jon will open up newly released files from the National Archives which relate to UCL researchers suspected of communist sympathies and even spying during the Cold War.

13th December 2016: Prof Val Curran, Prof of Psychopharmacology

(UCL, Clinical, Edu & Hlth Psychology, Div of Psychology & Lang Sciences, Faculty Brain Sciences.)

Cannabis: pleasure, madness and medicine

Cannabis has been used throughout history for its medicinal as well as its pleasurable effects. However the vast majority of scientific research on cannabis to date has focused on mental health harms – ‘madness’ - rather than pleasure or medicinal use. Cannabis contains over 70 unique ingredients we call ‘cannabinoids’ and levels of these vary widely in different types of cannabis. How does this variation influence the effects of the drug? What do we know of our brains’ own natural (endogenous) cannabis system? And why are some individuals more vulnerable than others to experiencing mental health problems related to cannabis use? In this talk I shall address these questions and ask what implications our increasing scientific understanding of cannabis has for current debates about medicalization and legalisation.

18th October 2016: Prof Andrew Coates

(Professor of Physics Deputy Director (Solar System) MSSL-UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL)

Looking for Life on Mars

Mars is one of our closest targets in the search for life beyond Earth, with other possibilities being Europa at Jupiter and Enceladus and Saturn. Mars has changed significantly in the 4.6 billion years since its formation. About 3.8 billion years ago, Mars had significant volcanism, a magnetic field, water on the surface and a thick atmosphere – at a time when life was starting on its closest planetary neighbour, the Earth. Mars now is cold and dry, and has a thin carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, with a harsh surface environment unprotected by a global magnetic field. Using results from recent Mars missions, including NASA’s current Curiosity rover, we will look at the difference between Mars 3.8 billion years ago and now, and the prospects for life there. We discuss current and future missions to Mars, and in particular ESA’s ExoMars rover. This will drill up to 2m under the harsh Martian surface for the first time, to search for signs of past or even present life. It carries the UCL-led PanCam instrument which will set the context for this fascinating mission.

8th June 2016: Prof Antonella Riccio MD PhD

(MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology , UCL)

Identification of a novel class of neuronal enhancer

The adaptation of living organisms to their surroundings depends on the capacity to fine-tune their behavior in response to ever-changing conditions. In neurons, extracellular stimuli induce changes of plasticity that are principally mediated by the expression of specific genes. Failure to rapidly adapt the transcriptional output to environmental conditions compromises the cellular responses that are essential for most neuronal functions, including memory formation. Spatio-temporal restriction of gene expression is achieved by the cooperation of multiple mechanisms, including the functional interaction of promoters with distally located enhancers. Although regulatory regions have been identified in both neurons and other mammalian cells, the mechanism by which they influence gene expression remains unknown. We discovered that a subset of Short Interspersed Nuclear Elements (SINEs) located in proximity of activity-regulated genes function as enhancers. Enhancer SINEs (eSINEs) are transcribed in response to depolarization by RNAPIII and facilitate RNAPII loading at gene promoters. Thus, eSINEs are a new class of activity-regulated enhancers that play an unprecedented role in linking RNAPII and RNAPIII transcription.

28th April 2016: Dr David Thornalley

(UCL, Department of Geography)

The Day after Tomorrow, Yesterday? The Great Ocean Conveyor and Abrupt Climate Change.

The circulation of the world’s ocean can be envisaged as a giant conveyer belt, with warm surface waters flowing northward in the North Atlantic, wherein they then sink and return southwards at depth. This conveyor transports large quantities of heat around the globe and is a crucial part of the climate system. Research over the last couple of decades has revealed that during the last Ice Age, there were abrupt changes in climate that are thought to be related to the rapid switching on and off of this ocean conveyor. These findings have raised concerns about the current and future stability of the ocean conveyor because it is sensitive to increased freshwater input to the North Atlantic, such as that presently occurring through the enhanced melting of the Greenland ice sheet as a response to anthropogenic global warming. While recent real-world science results suggest a weakening may already be underway, Hollywood took this concept a step or two (or many!) further, as the basis of the 2004 movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. In this talk I will present the science behind the hype, exploring the likelihood of a collapse of the ocean conveyor, as well as presenting some of my recent research that suggests there are still significant gaps in our understanding and modelling of the great ocean conveyor.

15th February 2016: Prof. Frances M. Brodsky

(UCL Division of Biosciences)

Diabetes, Diversity and Directing Traffic

Diabetes and obesity are increasing in the UK and worldwide, threatening susceptible populations with serious health, economic and social issues. While these conditions manifest at the level of the whole body, a common underlying cause is the malfunction of a pathway inside cells that controls clearance of glucose from blood into tissues, necessary because high blood glucose is toxic. This pathway relies on a process known as “membrane traffic” which controls the presence of a glucose transporter on the surface of fat and muscle cells in response to insulin secretion. Through our studies of molecular mechanisms of membrane traffic dependent on the clathrin protein, we discovered a specialized version of clathrin in humans that regulates membrane traffic of the insulin-responsive glucose transporter and thereby influences glucose uptake into muscle and fat. This specialized clathrin appeared during vertebrate evolution, has been lost in mice and is also variable in the human population. It also accumulates in the muscle of insulin-resistant Type 2 diabetic patients. The lecture will describe the forms of clathrin in humans, discuss their diversity of function and how evolution has expanded membrane traffic pathways in differentiated tissues, but also introduced potential for metabolic disease.

13th October 2015: Prof. Ruben Saakyan

(Dept of Physics & Astronomy, UCL)

Applications of Particle Physics: Proton Therapy and Muon Tomography

The goal of particle physics is to explain the underlying structure of our universe. As such it is perhaps the most fundamental branch of science. Yet, its amazing advances in the last 100 years have relied crucially on the availability of cutting edge experimental facilities. The technology developed for particle physics found multiple applications in medical imaging, micro-electronics, internet, security and many other areas. I will focus on two particular applications in which the UCL Particle Physics group is actively involved. One is an advanced method of cancer treatment with protons. The other is a security application that uses cosmic muons.

9th June 2015: Dr Victor Sojo

(Department of Genetics, Evolution, and Environment, UCL)

Left or Right: why is there handedness in life's molecules?

All life on Earth is "homochiral". For some reason one orientation was favoured over its mirror image in each of the three major types of biomolecules: nucleotides, proteins, and lipids. Famously, nucleotides in DNA and RNA have a D-sugar backbone, whereas proteins are built from L-amino acids. From the elegance of interstellar radiation to more mundane adsorption on terrestrial mud, many explanations have been put forward. But the third major type of biomolecules, lipids, has received less attention. The lipid backbones of archaea and bacteria are both exclusively homochiral, but the structures are inverted, mirror images of each other. What does this "dual homochirality" tell us about the origin of homochirality? Is there a big evolutionary mystery behind it? Victor will address these questions and what they mean for the origins of life, for the simple cells of archaea and bacteria, and eventualy for the complex eukaryotic cells.

29th April 2015: Prof Sophie Scott

(UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience)

The science of laughter

If you ask people what makes them laugh, they will tell you they laugh at jokes: however if you look at when they laugh a very different pattern emerges, in which laughter can be seen as an extremely important social emotion. This talk will explore the science of laughter, from laughter in other animals to the acoustics of laughter, and the ways that laughter is processed in our brains.

2nd February 2015: Dr Ivana Drobnjak

(Centre for Medical Image Computing, Department of Computer Science, UCL)

Computational modelling and the brain

Computational modelling can be used to study and engineer new biomedical imaging techniques. In many brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis, the microstructure of the brain changes and neurons change their size, density or organization. In order to be able to understand what is happening in the brain a way of "looking into" the brain is needed. Traditionally, this was only possible through invasive biopsy and histology. However, using computational modelling it is possible to estimate tissue changes by fitting mathematical models of cellular architecture to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data. This way the investigation into the brain is fully non-invasive and can be done clinically on patients. In this talk Ivana will discuss this methodology, and more generally computational modelling and how it has shaped her own interdisciplinary research in biomedicine.

9th December 2014: Dr Mark Huckvale

(Speech, Hearing and Phonetic Sciences)

How Joseph Fourier Transformed Everything

Joseph Fourier's Transform is a piece of mathematics which has had enormous influence on the modern world, but which remains largely unknown. It has application anywhere you want to separate signals from noise, or compress streams of data, or model changes in time series. It's in your mobile phone, your digital camera and your web browser. In this talk I'll trace its fascinating history from a controversial hypothesis by a tailor's son in 19th century France, through one of the great discoveries in mathematics to modern applications.

20th October 2014: Prof. Susan Evans

(Cell and Developmental Biology, UCL)

At the feet of the dinosaurs

The reptile group Lepidosauria encompasses two very unequal groups. Squamata (lizards and snakes) has more than 9000 living species, a near global istribution, and displays a wide range of sizes, diets, body forms, locomotor patterns and reproductive strategies. In contrast, Rhynchocephalia is today represented by a single genus, Sphenodon, the New Zealand Tuatara. This disparity has led to the Tuatara being termed a 'Living Fossil', 'unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs'. However, consideration of the fossil history, biology, and functional anatomy of these groups reveals a more complex - and more interesting - story that we are only now beginning to unravel.

2nd June 2014: Dr. Chris Brierley

(Department of Geography, UCL)

A world with this much CO2­: lessons from 4 million years ago

In Spring last year, carbon dioxide concentrations passed 400 parts per million in the atmosphere – a level not seen since the Pliocene era (3-5 million years ago), and perhaps not even then. We know that the Pliocene was a warm world without glacial cycles, and that the climate of the tropical Pacific was also structurally different. This lecture will discuss the causes and implications of this discrepancy.

8th April 2014: Prof Stephen Curry

(Imperial College London)

Molecules of sickness and death: understanding the structural basis of Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Foot-and-mouth disease virus, the pathogen that causes worldwide devastation of animal livestock, has a beguiling simplicity in its construction: it contains just a single gene. However, even with that limited resource the virus can infect and take over animal cells in a matter of hours, turning them into virus factories. Our research aims to understand the molecular and structural basis of virus replication with a view to stopping the virus in its tracks. Although there are effective vaccines for FMD, technical and political considerations complicate their use and there is still a need to develop antiviral drugs. My talk will discuss the broader issues of FMD control and report on our ongoing efforts to understand the structure and druggability of a key viral enzyme: the 3C protease.

27th February 2014: Professor Robert J Harvey

(Department of Pharmacology, UCL School of Pharmacy)

Defective inhibitory neurotransmission in startle disease: some surprising findings

Startle disease/hyperekplexia is a rare but potentially fatal human disorder characterised by exaggerated startle reflexes and muscle stiffness in response to sudden unexpected stimuli. The exaggerated startle response can persist into adulthood, leading to unprotected falls and injuries. Fortunately, startle disease can be treated using benzodiazepines that potentiate the function of the inhibitory receptor for GABA (the receptor for the neurotransmitter GABA that acts as a ligand-gated ion channel). The primary genetic cause of startle disease is defective transmission of the neurotransmitter glycine due to mutations in the α1 subunit of the glycine receptor (GlyR α1). Mutations have also been discovered in the genes encoding another subunit of the glycine receptor (the GlyR β subunit) and in the presynaptic glycine transporter GlyT2. Characterisation of a new GlyR and GlyT2 mutations that reveal new pathogenic mechanisms resulting in the loss of GlyR and GlyT2 function will be described. Curiously, patients with GlyR β subunit or GlyT2 mutations have additional clinical symptoms that have significant implications for neonatal intervention and patient care. GlyT2 mutations have recently also been found in Belgian Blue cattle and Irish Wolfhounds, where they have significant economic and animal welfare impacts. The frequency of mutations in animals suggests that in some species, startle disease has made the transition from being a rare disorder to one that is extremely common.

27th November 2013: Dr. Elaine Chew, Professor of Digital Media

(Centre for Digital Music, Queen Mary University of London)

Reason and Creativity in Music Performance

Music listening is a ubiquitous phenomenon worldwide, primarily because it titillates the senses. When immersed in music, the listener may be swept away by its intensity, experience feelings of transcendence, poignancy, or serenity, or simply marvel at the intricacies of the piece or the performer's pyrotechnics. Reason may seem like a distant concept disjoint from the visceral experience of the music. Contrary to popular belief that performers emote and indulge in hedonic expression, behind every successful performance is a series of deliberate and interconnected decisions that result from principled reasoning, exploiting the nature of human cognition of music. It is these choices that underscore the creativity in music performance. Using scientific and computational tools, I shall uncover evidence for some of these design strategies employed in expert performance.

15th October 2013: Dr Georgina Mace

(Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research (CBER), Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College L)

Biodiversity conservation: can we afford to care in a resource hungry world?

Biodiversity plays many roles in the natural world, some of which are critical to human health and wellbeing, but it is in rapid decline: the "biodiversity crisis". Yet the value and importance of biodiversity is perceived very differently in various parts of society; consider, for example, the different perspectives of land use planners, natural resource managers, conservation biologists and naturalists. As the demand for resources escalates everywhere, it is becoming more important to understand the role of biodiversity and its values. I will review the status and trends of global biodiversity and then discuss how scientific research can contribute to a more coherent assessment of why biodiversity matters.

14th June 2013: Prof Mark Lancaster

(High Energy Physics Group, Physics and Astronomy, UCL)

Particle Physics: Known Unknowns and what follows the Higgs Boson ?

The discovery of a Higgs-like boson at CERN's Large Hadron Collider was the culmination of over 30 years effort to build the world's largest experiments and vindicated a theory almost 50 years old. A triumph of human endeavour and this "success" is the side of particle physics most apparent to the public. However the Higgs is only a small, but significant, part of the story and lurking beneath this are a mass of unanswered questions: notably that we have no explanation for what 95% of the universe is made of and how more than one galaxy was able to form. I'll review what we've learnt in the last 10 years in particle physics and what we are planning to do next to answer the question: "What follows the Higgs ?"

25th March 2013: Prof. Paul Ekins

(Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy, Director, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources)

Sustainable Energy for All: this year, next year, sometime -- or never?

What does 'sustainable energy for all' mean? How much energy, 'sustainable' over what period, and who are the 'all'? If this ambitious goal is achievable, then how can it be done, and by when? And who will pay for achieving it? To mark the UN International Year of Sustainable Energy for all, this lecture explores the environmental, economic, and social issues raised by these questions and the implications for public policy.

3rd December 2012: Prof Ian Robinson

(UCL London Centre for Nanotechnology)

The Braggs and X-ray Diffraction

100 years ago, Henry and Lawrence Bragg (Father and Son) published an explanation of why crystals produced a distinct pattern of spots when exposed to X-rays by Friedrich, Knipping and Laue a year earlier. Their discovery of "X-ray Diffraction" has had profound implications in physics, chemistry and biology and has led, directly or indirectly, to about 20 Nobel prizes. I will demonstrate how diffraction works in this lecture. Today in the LCN, we use X-rays generated by large synchrotron radiation facilities, based on electron particle accelerators, to obtain 3D images of nanomaterials in the ultimate quest for creating better medical sensors.

11th October 2012: Dr. James Steele

(Institute of Archaeology, UCL)

An archaeologist's hunt for the origins of speech

In the 1970s two new bodies of research emerged based on conjectures about the evolution of spoken language. One conjecture is that the human bias, at the population level, to right-handedness is a unique trait of our species, which evolved as a correlate of specialization for language processing in the left cerebral hemisphere. Another conjecture is that the human vocal tract has unique morphological traits that have evolved to permit articulation of a greater range of speech sounds. These two quite separate conjectures have led archaeologists and physical anthropologists to investigate fosil bones and early tools, searching for evidence of the emergence of a population bias towards right-handedness and of the appearance of distinctively human features of the vocal tract. I will introduce some of the evidence that has been found, and also summarise some of the observations that call into question the basis of the original conjectures.

21st June 2012: Dr. Katharine Giles

(UCL Centre for Polar Observation & Modelling)

Exploring the Arctic from Space

The Arctic's supposed promise of abundant natural resources, shipping routes and scientific discoveries, has a long held fascination for those prepared to brave its harsh environment. With climate models predicting that the Polar Regions are the most sensitive to climate change, our need to understand them becomes increasingly important. The sub-zero temperatures and inhospitable icescapes faced by explorers also present problems to scientists collecting data. This lecture focuses on how satellites can help us understand the changing Arctic, and will also come back down to Earth to show UCL scientists stepping out onto the frozen ocean to validate the European Space Agency's CryoSat-2 satellite, which is designed to measure changes in the ice cover with unprecedented accuracy.

3rd May 2012: Dr. Roger Mason

(Department of Geology, UCL)

A Volcano under China's Great Wall

The eastern end of China's Great Wall is at Shanhaiguan, Hebei Province, where it comes down to the Bohai Gulf about 400 km ENE of Beijing. The wall climbs steeply from the pass over a mountain massif called Houshihu Shan, an eroded volcano that was violently active for a brief period in early Cretaceous times, about 120 million years ago. Our team from China University of Geosciences, Wuhan, identified sub-volcanic structures such as ring-dykes, ring-faults, cone sheets and a collapsed caldera confirming the massif as a high level sub-volcanic structure. Such structures occur in ring complexes, and are familiar in Scotland and Ireland but none have been described from China in any detail. Some cone sheets contain pellet-like structures (accreted lapilli) that also occur in layers of erupted ash and we propose a new theory for their mode of formation.

30th November -0001:


24th February 2012: Prof. John Dickinson

(Emeritus Professor Medicine, Queen Mary, University Of London)

Mysterious Cause of Essential Hypertension

The talk will outline the mysterious human disease "essential hypertension" - high blood pressure from no apparent cause - and present the complete explanation for it. Professor Dickinson arrived at (and published)this explanation already in 1960 by measuring the flow resistance of the main cerebral arteries in a large series of cadavers. It fits all epidemiological, physiological and pathological observations and so far has not been disproved.

Professor Julian Paton (Bristol) has identified comparable hypertension in selectively inbred rats, which had exactly analogous pathological changes. A book entitled "Cerebrovascular Hypertension" by these two authors will be published end of March 2012.

9th December 2011: Prof. Mark Thomas

(Genetics, Evolution & Environment, UCL)

The Origins of Lactase Persistence and Dairying in Europe

Most Europeans take drinking milk for granted; it's the everyday consumption of an everyday drink. But for most adult humans, indeed, for most adult mammals, milk is very far from an everyday drink. Milk is something that we have specifically evolved to be able to consume in the relatively recent past. The ability to digest the sugar in milk is called Lactase Persistence and Darwin's engine of evolutionary change, natural selection, has probably worked harder on this trait than on any other biological characteristic of Europeans in the last 10,000 years. In this presentation we will see how Genetics, Archaeology, Anthropology, Physiology, ancient DNA and computer simulations can be combined to understand where, when and how Lactase persistence co-evolved with the culture of dairying in Europeans.

5th October 2011: Prof. Caroline Wardle

(Computer Science, Queen Mary University of London)

Big Brother is Alive and Well: Surveillance and Ethics

Given the ubiquity of surveillance cameras in the U.K., can a perceived need for a high level of security for everyone to be balanced against an individual's right to privacy?

Dr. Wardle will discuss some surveillance technologies being used in authentication and object detection research projects together with their associated ethical issues.

8th June 2011: Prof. Michael Duchen

(Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, UCL)

New Perspectives of mitochondrial biology: at the heart of cell life and cell death

Mitochondria are microscopic structures that inhabit almost all cells in almost all organisms. Thought to have originated originally from bacterial ancestors that established a symbiotic relationship with a primitive cell, they play a fundamental and essential role in the cellular economy, generating molecules that are used to power energy dependent reactions in cells. This includes generation of cell signals that allows cells to communicate - for example in the nervous system - perhaps providing the energy for thought and memory. Mitochondria are required to power muscle contraction and cell migration and to provide the energy needed in simple cellular housekeeping, maintaining and repairing cells from day to day injury.

Perhaps it is hardly surprising then that disturbances of mitochondrial function lead to disease, and there are now strong grounds to implicate mitochondrial dysfunction in the pathogenesis of many major diseases, ranging from heart attack and stroke, the major neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and a range of rarer debilitating neuromuscular diseases. Changes in mitochondrial function with age may even underlie ageing and age related disease.

Modern approaches to biological research, especially with the arrival of genomics and functional imaging, have opened up a new world of mitochondrial research which has blossomed and transformed the field in the past 10 years or so, leading to a massive expansion in our understanding of the fundamental biology that shapes mitochondrial behaviour in cells and tissues.

I will give a broad review of what we understand about these processes and try to give you some insight into how we now study mitochondrial function in living cells and tissues in our search to define new therapeutic targets for these major diseases.

3rd May 2011: Dr. Nick Lane

(Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL)

How easy was the origin of life?

So far as we know, life arose only once on Earth, probably as long ago as 4 billion years - almost as soon as conditions permitted. Statistical arguments don't make sense with a sample size of 1, but the principles underpinning all life today do give some insights into probability. I shall argue that the origin of life was easy, but evolving greater complexity than bacteria was difficult.

9th February 2011: Professor Geoffrey Raisman FRS

(Institute of Neurology, UCL)

The Idea That May Lead to Repair of the Brain and Spinal Cord

The wiring of the brain and spinal cord is the basis of its functions. It has taken several decades to accept that this wiring changes with experience and training. But this leads to a new frontier: how can we repair injuries that now leave people permanently paralysed?

8th December 2010: Prof. John Humberston

(Physics, UCL)

Relatively Speaking: 100 years of Einstein's E=mc2

One hundred years ago Albert Einstein derived what is still arguably the most famous equation in the world, E = mc2 , the consequences of which continue to have a profound influence on the modern world. In this talk Prof John Humberston, a theoretician working in atomic physics, will discuss the significance of the equation and give a relatively simple account of Einstein's life and his theory of relativity.

14 October 2010: Dr Lewis Dartnell

(UCL Centre for Planetary Science)

Astrobiology - the hunt for alien life

'Astrobiology' is a brand new field of science, encompassing research into the origins and limits of life on our own planet, and where life might exist beyond the Earth. But what actually is 'life' and how did it emerge on our own world? What are the most extreme conditions terrestrial life can tolerate? And what would an alien actually look like - how realistic are the life-forms envisaged by science fiction novels and films over the years? Join Dr. Lewis Dartnell on a tour of the other planets and moons in our solar system which may harbour life, and even further afield to alien worlds orbiting distant stars, to explore one of the greatest questions ever asked: are we alone...?

10 June 2010: Dr. Patricia Rothman

(Department of Mathematics, UCL)

The man who invented the concept of pi: William Jones and his circle.

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.Her lecture will also touch on the lives of some of the notablecharacters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who contributed to his story.

Thursday February 11th 2010: Professor Anthony W Segal, FRS

(Charles Dent Professor of Medicine, Director, Centre for Molecular Medicine,UCL)

The cause of Crohn's disease revealed

Crohn's disease is an inflammatory disease of the intestines that may affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract. The cause of CD has remained an enigma for over 80 years. It was previously thought to be an autoimmune disease, classified as a type of inflammatory bowel disease.The genome-wide association studies (GWAS) identified approximately 30 CD associated genes (accounting for approximately 15- 20% of attributable risk), which have provided little insight into the molecular mechanisms involved in the pathogenesis of CD.

In the Segal lab major advances in the understanding of the cause of CD have been made recently. Their evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that the unifying defect in CD is the failure to clear bacteria and other colonic contents that gain access to the interior of the wall of the bowel, and that it is the persistence of this foreign material in the tissues that produces the granulomatous inflammation characteristic of CD.

About 10-30% of CD occurs in families in which multiple members are affected. New technology has become available that should allow us to identify the precise molecules and genes responsible for this disease in affected family members.These studies might help the development of diagnostic tests and new therapies.

Monday December 14th 2009: Prof. Geoffrey Burnstock

(Autonomic Neuroscience Centre, UCL Medical School)

The struggle and the ultimate success in establishing purinergic neurotransmission

A story of the developments that led to purinergic-based treatments for stroke and thrombosis, pain, bladder incontinence, cystic fibrosis and cancer.

Prof. Burnstock will talk about the major conceptual steps that built up to the concept of purinergic signalling that he proposed in 1970 in Melbourne (i.e. ATP acting as an extracellular signalling molecule). He will mention some of the key scientists who influenced its development and discuss the various forms that resistance to this concept took for the next 20 years. He will then talk about the current explosion of international interest in purinergic signalling and its exploration for the treatment of a variety of diseases, including stroke and thrombosis, pain, bladder incontinence, cystic fibrosis, kidney disease, osteoporosis, neurological diseases and cancer. The talk will finish with a description of new hypothesis about the scientific (purinergic) basis of acupuncture.

Tuesday November 3rd 2009: Prof. Walter Gratzer

(King's College London, Randall Centre for Molecular Mechanisms of Cell Function)

The Wilder Shores of Science

‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it’. So said the American sage.

There are many forks in the highway of science, and one of the branches commonly leads into a swamp. When a solitary voyager falls into such a swamp and is never seen again, the effect on the other voyagers is hardly perceptible. But if a large contingent of his fellow-travellers choose to follow him in, a major catastrophe can ensue. We have probably all encountered lone deluded souls ­ some messianic and convinced of their genius, others simply devoid of the critical faculty. This is a part of human nature, and its effect is trivial. Mass movements are a much more serious and psychologically interesting phenomenon, for they generally involve perfectly normal people (like us), often of high intelligence and achievement. How do these aberrations occur? I will describe some examples, results of a suspension of the rules on which the practice of science is based. Some arise from loyalty to an respected patron and from that patron’s powers of persuasion, some from a fear of exclusion or rejection, and some, most perniciously, from ideological imperatives. When such a movement very abruptly collapses, as is most often the case, it leaves behind ruined reputations, bafflement and red faces.

Tuesday June 23rd 2009: Prof. Chris Dean

(UCL Cell and Developmental BIology)

Using teeth to reconstruct the past:

The cells that form teeth do so once and once only. When fully formed tooth tissues never turn over and never re-grow. Teeth contain both a temporal and a chemical record of their developmental history for a lifetime, and even beyond into the archaeological and fossil record. Tooth tissues contain an incremental record of their growth and this provides the basis for retrieving a chronological history, for example, of rates of tooth growth and of stressful events that have remained embedded within the tooth tissues. Using teeth to determine a chronological age for some of the earliest ancient fossil specimens that belong to our own genus Homo, approximately1.6 million years old, has revealed something about our own unique pattern of general growth. This gives us clues to how and why modern humans are able, on the one hand, to invest so much energy into the very prolonged period of growth of their children, but on the other hand, to support high levels of fertility with relatively short interbirth intervals.

Tuesday 5th May 2009: Dr. Guillaume Charras

(London Centre for Nanotechnology)

Life and Times of a Cellular Bleb

Blebs are spherical cellular protrusions that occur in many physiological situations. Two distinct phases make up the life of a bleb, each of which have their own biology and physics: expansion, which lasts about 30 s, and retraction, which lasts about2 min. We investigate these phases using optical microscopy and simple theoretical concepts, seeking information on blebbing itself, and on cytomechanics in general. We show that bleb nucleation depends on pressure, membrane-cortex adhesion energy, and membrane tension, and test this experimentally. Bleb growth occurs through a combination of bulk flow of lipids and delamination from the cell cortex via the formation and propagation of tears. In extreme cases, this can give rise to a traveling wave around the cell periphery, known as ''circus movement.''

When growth stalls, an actin cortex reforms under the bleb membrane, and retraction starts, driven by myosin-II. Using flicker spectroscopy, we find that retracting blebs are fivefold more rigid than expanding blebs, an increase entirely explained by the properties of the newly formed cortical actin mesh. Finally, using artificially nucleated blebs as pressure sensors, we show that cells rounded up in mitosis possess a substantial intracellular pressure.

Tuesday 10th February 2009: Dr Serena Viti

(UCL Physics and Astronomy)

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 vital to an understanding of the mechanisms that drive our universe. Most stars are mainly hydrogen and are very hot. The interstellar medium 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 studies this evolution. This lecture aims to give an overview of this relatively new subject by reviewing recent advances in astrochemistry and its relevance to other fields such as cosmology and astrobiology.

Monday 8th December 2008: Prof Steve Jones,

(UCL Biology)

Is human evolution over?

Many people assume that the human race is in decline. The idea is an ancient one and gained new life with the work of Charles Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics. Certainly, plenty of people are surviving who once did not, and others are having children when once they would have stayed celibate; and there are plenty of cases where medicine can treat those with damaged genes and can allow them to pass them on. This lecture will argue that in spite of this popular fear, everything we know about the process of evolution conspires to ensure that ­ at least in the developed world, and at least for the time being ­ human evolution has slowed down or stopped.

Tuesday 4th November 2008: Dr Simon Dein

(Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry, UCL Medicine)

Voice of God

Prayer and verbally answered prayer would seem to offer powerful evidence in relation to the question of human agency. Forty members of an English Pentecostal church completed a questionnaire on prayer, twenty-five of whom reported an answering voice from God; fifteen of them hearing Him aloud. The latter groups were interviewed and characteristics of phenomenology and context elicited. The voice of God cannot be held to be ipso facto pathological and many reported its utility in situations of doubt or difficulty.

Thursday 19th June 2008: Professor Andrew Coates

(UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory)

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.

Thursday February 14th 2008 : Dr Astrid Wingler

(UCL Biology)

Victims or Saviours - Can Plants Protect Us Against Global Warming?

Plants produce the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat. By assimilating 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 plant species? Can we offset our carbon emissions by planting trees or is it better to invest in new technologies for the production of bio-fuels?

Thursday December 13th 2007: Prof. Francisco Diego

(UCL, Astronomy).

Creation and evolution in the Universe

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 timeline illustrates how vital that seemingly eternal evolution was to the universe's development of its most complex structure: a biochemical 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.

Thursday October 25th 2007: Prof Bruce Lynn

Director MSc School-Human Health & Performance

Physical Fitness: Population Trends and Why They Matter

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? The information we have indicates that this is the case, but the data are fragmentary. How easy would it be to hold a regular national fitness survey? I will discuss how this could inform national fitness targets, shed light on the true state of the nation’s fitness and change our behaviour.

Thursday 22nd March 2007 : Prof. Mel Slater

(UCL Computer Science and Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA), Virtual Reality Centre of Barcelona, Universitat Politècnica dd Catalunya)

The Use of Virtual Reality in Research into Human Behaviour Under Conditions of Stress: A Virtual Reality Milgram Obedience Experiment

In the 1960s Stanley Milgram carried out a series of experiments in an attempt to understand events in which people carry out horrific acts against their fellows. He showed that in a social structure with recognised lines of authority, ordinary people could be relatively easily persuaded to give what seemed to be even lethal electric shocks to another randomly chosen person. Today, his results are often quoted in helping to explain how people become embroiled in organised acts of violence against others, for example they have been recently cited to explain prisoner abuse and even suicide bombings. However the experiments caused enormous heart-searching about the ethical implications of this kind of psychological research, and Milgram's work has not been and can not be directly replicated.

At UCL we have been investigating whether by running similar experiments within a computer-simulated immersive virtual evironment the influence of extreme social situations on behaviour can be studied without risk to the participants. The question is whether the virtual environment is convincing enough to elicit the kind of behavioural and physiological responses seen in Milgram's studies. If so, it opens up the possibility of ethical research into the psychological reaction to authority, and other extreme social issues such as responses to street violence.

Tuesday 16th January 2007 : Dr Hasok Chang

UCL Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Adventures of a Scientific Potter: The Rise and Fall of the Wedgwood Pyrometer

Before the late 18th century there were no well-established methods of pyrometry (measurement of high temperatures) available in the range beyond the boiling point of mercury. The Staffordshire artisan Josiah Wedgwood, "Potter to Her Majesty" Queen Charlotte, devised an ingenious pyrometer in the 1780s based on the contraction of clay pieces under high heat. Initially intended for ascertaining the temperatures of pottery kilns, Wedgwood's pyrometer was soon adopted across Europe as the standard instrument for various scientific and technological purposes. However, in the course of the 19th century the Wedgwood pyrometer was rejected as incorrect, as the contraction of clay came to be seen as highly non-linear.

This paper provides a detailed account of the rise and fall of the Wedgwood pyrometer, focusing on a basic epistemic question: how was it possible to check the correctness of the Wedgwood pyrometer, when there were no other trusted temperature standards in the pyrometric range? How did the conclusion get established that Wedgwood's assumption of linearity in the contraction of clay was incorrect? A detailed examination of the history reveals that the anti-Wedgwood conclusion was only reached on the basis of a sort of epistemic ganging-up: various other pyrometric methods produced results that agreed much more with each other than any one of them did with Wedgwood. These other methods included: the expansion of metals (especially platinum, as employed by Guyton de Morveau, and then Daniell); air thermometry, made applicable in the pyrometric range by means of vessels of gold or platinum, instead of glass; measurement of the time of cooling, going back to Newton's work; ice calorimetry, pioneered by Laplace and Lavoisier; and water calorimetry. Each of these methods was in itself as poorly justified as Wedgwood's, but received validation through its agreement with the other methods.

In terms of epistemic justification, such mutual agreement only provides logical consistency and circularity. However, the mutual grounding of measurement methods was an important and effective strategy of concept-building in this case, as the new measurement standards served to provide a working definition of temperature in a new domain, and allowed the making and coordination of a wide range of phenomena in the exploratory phase of inquiry.

Wednesday 6th December 2006: Dr Sarah Blakemore

UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

Social cognitive development during adolescence

Adolescence is a time characterised by change - hormonally, physically and mentally. We now know that some brain areas, particularly the frontal cortex, continue to develop well beyond childhood. Firstly, there is an increase in myelination of cell axons (which increases transmission speed). Second, there is a gradual decrease in synaptic density, indicating pruning of connections between neurons. These neural changes suggest that it is possible that cognitive abilities relying on the frontal cortex will also change during adolescence, and this is indeed the case. Recent research has demonstrated that a variety of cognitive abilities are refined during puberty and adolescence. In this talk, I will focus on social cognitive development during adolescence, including development of perspective taking and understanding intentions.

Tuesday 17th October 2006: Dr David Bender

UCL Dept of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

The Antioxidant paradox

There is a great deal of evidence that oxidative damage by free radicals underlies many forms of cancer, and coronary heart disease. There is good epidemiological evidence that people who have a high intake of antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E are less at risk of heart disease and cancer. There are plausible biochemical mechanisms to explain how these compounds act as antioxidants.

Intervention trials using beta-carotene and / or vitamin E supplements have, at best been disappointing, and at worst have shown increased mortality among people taking the supposedly protective supplements. This is the antioxidant paradox.

Monday 8th May 2006: Prof Bill McGuire

(Benfield Professor and Director, Benfield Hazard Research Centre, Research School of Earth Sciences)

Global risk from extreme geophysical events

Global geophysical events (GGEs) are natural phenomena capable of having wholesale deleterious consequences for the environment and/or society.
These may arise (i) due to a global physical effect, such as an episode of severe planetary cooling in response to a volcanic 'super-eruption' or large impact, or (ii) as a result of knock-on ramifications for the global economy and social fabric of a cataclysmic regional event, such as an ocean-wide mega-tsunami, or a local event at a strategic location, such as the forthcoming major Tokyo earthquake.
In any single year, the probability of occurrence of a GGE is very low, typically far less than 1 percent. In the longer term, however, such events are certain. Frequencies range from tens to hundreds of millions of years for the largest impacts and flood basalt outpourings, through 10,000 - 500,000 years for mega-tsunami generation, volcanic 'super-eruptions' and smaller impacts, to just a few centuries for more commonplace earthquakes, tsunamis and explosive eruptions with the potential for global disruption.

Wednesday 8th March 2006: Prof Chris Frith
(Professor in Neuropsychology, Dept. Cognitive Neurology Institute of Neurology)

Neural Hermeneutics: How brains enable minds to communicate

January 2006: Dr Conrad King

(Biology, UCL)

A moving story of gliding protozoans

Within the kingdom of Protista, the phylum Sporozoa is entirely parasitic and includes many species pathogenic to man. The malarial parasite (Plasmodium) is probably the best known but others, e.g. Toxoplasma and Cryptosporidium, play an important role in AIDS infections.

Generally these parasites are small, about 10 microns in length and can fit inside a cell. However, Gregarina, which lives in the gut lumen of many insects, can reach a length of 300 microns. Gliding movement of Sporozoa is crucial to their entry into vertebrate target cells, such as red blood cells and liver cells for Plasmodium.

Actin and myosin play key roles in this process. Addition of small latex beads to the cell surface results in bead translocation due to the gliding movements of the parasites. This force generation can be analysed by video-microscopy, use of inhibitors and the application of laser trapping.

December 2005: Dr Mark Huckvale

(Phonetics and Linguistics, UCL)

How to build a talking machine: issues of science, engineering and artificial life

If you want to build a machine that talks, you have only three logical choices.

  • The first we can call the ‘scientific’ approach: embody knowledge about how humans speak into a simulation of a person.
  • The second is the ‘engineering’ approach: simulate by any means the noises that humans make when they talk.
  • The third is the ‘artificial life’ approach: build a simulation of a human infant and teach it to speak.

In this talk Mark will demonstrate some talking machines built along each of these three lines. He will highlight some of the strengths and weaknesses of the three approaches and demonstrate that, unfortunately, each has fundamental limitations. It may be that we need to revise our expectations about the capability of non-human machines to use human language.

May 2005: Prof. Richard Strange

(Biology, UCL)

Plant disease as a cause of food insecurity

Plant pathogens can be very destructive to our important crops. Prof. Strange addressed the following questions: How do plant pathogens kill their hosts? What active defence mechanisms do plants deploy against pathogens? How can we protect our crops more effectively against disease? Can biological as opposed to chemical control provide some answers? And are genetically modified crops an effective way of controlling diseases without resorting to broad-spectrum biocides?

March 2005: Prof. Dallas Swallow

(Biology - Galton Laboratory)

Myths about Milk: Genetic and Cultural Adaptation

In most adults, the enzyme lactase that digests the milk sugar lactose decreases, resulting in intolerance to lactose (and therefore milk). Having high lactase in adult life may have conferred an evolutionary advantage, enabling some populations of humans to get nutritional benefit from consuming milk from other mammals. Prof. Swallow explained the genetic basis of this common human variation and discussed its origins and significance.

December 2004: Prof. Andrew Fisher

(Physics & Astronomy - London Centre for Nanotechnology)

Nanotechnology and science in the twenty-first century

Prof. Fisher described some of the key research tools, and formation and future plans for the London Centre for Nanotechnology - the joint reponse of UCL and Imperial College to the scientific and technological motivations for research in nanotechnology

November 2004: Prof. Ivan Parkin

(Chemistry, UCL)

Nanoscaled thin films on glass from self cleaning windows to intelligent thermochromic coatings

Prof. Parkin’s group at UCl have been working with Pilkington Glass on the formation of 1) new self-cleaning glass - that is glass that cleans itself by the action of sunlight and rainwater and 2) new thermochromic glass that is able to reflect the infra red portion of the sunlight if the temperature of the window gets above a certain level. The talk provided some illustrations of how glass is made, how a coating is applied and some of the underlying chemistry and physics associated with the process.

June 2004: Dr. Ray Noble

(Obstetrics & Gynaecology, UCL Medical School)

Big Babies Good, Small Babies Bad?" Ethical and social considerations of the developmental origin of adult disease.

Dr. Noble argued that the current concept of the foetal origin of adult disease creates a pseudo-pathological condition by regarding low birth weight, even within the normal range, as an impairment. The aim of increasing the mean birth weight and the threat of interventionist strategies may challenge the autonomy and rights of pregnant women.

March 2004: Dr. Henry Potts

(Centre for Health Informatics & Multiprofessional Education)

From Viagra to support groups: how do people use the internet for health?

Are doctors panicking about the quality of health information on the internet because it challenges the profession's hegemony of knowledge?
People use the internet for health-related reasons, which can mean anything from online support groups to ordering Viagra through the post. This affects relationships between patients and health care professionals

February 2004: Dr. Angus Bain

(Physics and Astronomy)


'CoMPLEX' The UCL Centre for Mathematics and Physics in the Life Sciences and Experimental Biology has been set up and is now up and running. Already some exciting interdisciplinary projects are underway and the talk gave an overview of progress and prospects for the future.

Earlier Meetings:

  • December 2003: Prof. John Adams (Department of Geography)
    In defense of “Bad Luck”
  • October 2003: Dr. Alan Cottenden (Med. Physics and Bioengineering)
    Bringing Physics to Life
  • May 2003 Dr. John Holton (Medical Microbiology)
    Is the bowel a Trojan horse?
  • April 2003: Prof. Harold Thimbleby (Computer Science)
    Revolting calculators and a better future without them
  • February 2003: Prof. Gloria Laycock
    Crime and Science
  • December 2002 : Prof. David Williams (Physics and Astronomy)
    Influences of Astronomy on Human Civilisation
  • October 2002: Prof. J. Brockes (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology)
    New limbs for old – the problem of animal regeneration.
  • May 2002: Prof. Graham Rook (Medical Microbiology)
    Modern life and the dramatic increase in inflammatory diseases attributable to failure of immnoregulatory mechanisms
  • March 2002: Prof. Ken Binmore (Economics)
    Game Theory and Biology
  • February 2002: Dr. Grazziella Branduardi-Raymont (Physics and Astronomy)
    Space Astronomy and XMM-Newton


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