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2015 is a year of anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the 70th anniversary of VJ Day, and we’re still in the midst of the centenary commemorations of WWI. Archaeologists have been marking these anniversaries in the best way they know how: by excavating war sites.

Conflict Archaeology – the archaeology of 20th and 21st century conflict – has been a growth area in the discipline since the year 2000, and more and more archaeologists have been developing an interest in the subject and defecting from their previous specialities in other areas of the discipline. This is also true for me: in 2006 I moved from Iron Age and Roman Archaeology to Conflict Archaeology, and have been spending much time analysing the archaeology, heritage and memory of the German occupation of WWII.

As my students will know, I spend a lot of time in the Channel Islands, where I have been doing fieldwork for nearly a decade now. In fact, I have just returned from a pilot project to explore the WWI POW camp in St Brelade in Jersey. After receiving seed funding from the Société Jersiaise, I invited my colleagues Professors Harold Mytum and Nick Saunders to join me in Jersey where we had a lot of fun wandering around the site in the rain, spotting the foundations and barrack hut stilts of the former camp.

We also excavated a test pit in an area which might have been the rubbish heap of the camp. It always amuses me how ridiculously happy archaeologists can get about rubbish pits! We spent an exciting afternoon getting soaked to the skin excavating a test pit and exclaiming over the old Jersey stoneware cider bottles we found.

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In the spring of this year I directed the second season of excavation at Lager Wick, a forced labour camp in Jersey, dating from 1942-1944. Although the rubbish pit of this camp was not accessible, my team explored the camp latrine and what I reckon was the mess hut of the guards, which burnt down in 1944. I found (among many other things) the base of a Nazi mug complete with eagle and swastika, the button from a guard’s uniform, a schnapps glass, a cuff-link, and a spoon handle.

Excavating is incredibly addictive. In some ways it’s like panning for gold – once you start scraping away at the surface of the soil, you can’t stop! I hope that students on the ICE Diploma in Archaeology discovered the same sense of discovery in their summer excavation module.

This coming year, the Diploma in Archaeology will offer a course in Conflict Archaeology, and I look forward to showing the students the results of my excavations in addition to work being done by other archaeologists in the field. We also run an Advanced Diploma in Archaeology at ICE, and I always look forward to welcoming students with a project in Conflict Archaeology. The deadline for signing up for our courses is 7 September 2015 – see you in October!

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Dr Gilly Carr, ICE University Senior Lecturer and Academic Director in Archaeology

Sunset blog

The time has flown. As I rather anticipated, the whirlwind of the Summer enfolded us all, and before I had a chance to write a ‘mid-term’ blog, the Summer Schools were over for 2015.

Looking back, we had grey rainy days, and sunshine, and six fast-paced weeks of plenaries and courses. I have been compiling statistics for our Annual Report, and taking stock reminds me why we seemed to have plenty of activity to fill each day. On any one day there were up to 40 teaching sessions and 8 plenaries. Over 180 people were involved in the delivery of over 170 plenary sessions and 184 courses. Courses embraced a great swathe of subjects, including new ones such as: animal behaviour; media theory and practice; modern fantasy fiction; the modern graphic novel; and Greek drama. Workshops, practical sessions and visits included palaeography, ecology, geology, zoology, astronomy, palaeontology, botany and the history of science.

I’ve been very fortunate to hear a good number of those 170 plenary sessions, and come away from each summer with a pile of notes I take to help the information sink in.. As a ‘fringe benefit’ of chairing these talks, I have considerably extended my understanding of Charles Darwin’s circle of influence; the importance of Magna Carta; poisonous plants; Aztec sacrifice; Leonardo da Vinci’s understanding of the anatomy of the human heart. (I must go back to notes taken on the history of English and on dialects, to be reminded of the definitions for words which have fallen out of use: ‘curglaff’, ‘torfle’ and (in its original meaning) ‘skype’.)

Science plenaries explored Curiosity through topics as wide-ranging as Egyptian mummies, bees, black holes, stem cells and evolution. Plenary lectures on Tragedy and Comedy for the Literature programme have embraced the Greeks and Shakespeare, photography, and satire. Students on Ancient and Classical Worlds investigated the parallel lives of Alexander and Julius Caesar, Achilles and Oysseus and ‘noble Greeks and Romans’. The Shakespeareans have been treated to lute music and very fine acting, as well as a host of interpretations of their theme: Truth and Fiction. Medievalists heard about criminal gangs, criminal justice under Henry V, and punishment and pardon. The Creative Writers heard from novelists, poets and agents, wrote copiously, and produced some very fine pieces of their own. Our IARU GSP students tackled communication milestones, the rise and fall of empires, Darwin’s influence and major wars in their understanding of Our changing world.

Oh yes: the first stick insect, python, giant millipede and trainee guide-dog made guest appearances for our animal behaviour courses (on Science and ISS Term I).

A great many people have volunteered to be ‘film stars’, recording their response to the Summer for us to use in future publicity.

At Closing Dinners we asked for everyone to fill in an online feedback form (thanks, these are still coming in) and to send entries for the photo competition. We gave out attendance certificates and exchanged ‘au revoirs’ rather than ‘goodbyes’. We spoke of friendships: new ones just made, and ones re-kindled by returning students and lecturers. I admitted that I have been greatly influenced by my own first study abroad experience, and since then, a sustained friendship with a great mentor whose example has reminded me how you should surround yourself with people who make the best of every opportunity, who love travel and learning, and who have open minds… other words, precisely the type of people who come to Summer Schools. It has been rewarding to do this great job for so many years!

It’s the uplifting sense of group achievement (something satisfactory for teachers, students and organisers alike) at the end of a really good, vintage summer like this one, which sustains the International Programmes team as we begin all over again, working with our Programme and Course Directors to plan a new round of fascinating courses and intriguing plenaries for 2016.

Watch this space!


Sarah Ormrod

Iconic Ronconi 2

Well, our first 300 students are here: another 40 arrive next week, for the second half of the first programmes: Ancient and Classical Worlds, Science Term I and Science Term II. Interdisciplinary Term I students are just completing their first week of two, and the IARU Global Summer Programme (GSP) students are finishing their first week of four.

It has been exciting to welcome the representatives of 40 countries. The UK immigration requirement that all by EEA students have a visa to study has an upside: my colleagues and I meet everyone on arrival and check passports. It has been exciting to see so many different passports – including (to my recollection over many years) my first sight of a UN passport, and of a San Marino one.

True to form, we have already had hot sunny weather, cooler, more overcast weather, and pounding rain.

We’ve had stormingly good plenaries, and a very well-received set of 38 week 1 courses across the five programmes. Joint talks have introduced people to Cambridge ceremonials, the BBC, Cambridge architecture, and dyslexia. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear the ISS I-specific talks on Illuminating the future, The Lady Chapel at Ely, A Renaissance ‘who dunnit’ (about the current thinking on whether bronzes on loan at the Fitzwilliam are by Michelangelo), and Richard III’s funeral. I’ve also seen one on Transformations with image and light, from high definition projectionist team Ross Ashton and Karen Monid, having missed their work this winter at the Cambridge e-Luminate festival. I’ve heard great things of talks on the Ancient and Classical Worlds, Literature and Science programmes, covering a vast range of topics, from Boudicca and Agrippina, Eudoxus and Ptolemy, and Plutarch, to Wordsworth’s notebooks, Music’s War Poets and Dickens and disorderly laughter, and Rainsforests, Genome-sequencing and The physiology of exploration. There are so many intriguing titles!

We’ve good weather -so far- for the weekend trips to see Othello in Stratford and Oxford, and students not on the excursions are exploring Cambridge before classes start again – with our new arrivals – on Monday. Domenic Ronconi’s great picture from last year shows that there are quiet green spaces to explore in College gardens, as well as the bustling city centre.

Here’s to week two!

Sarah Ormrod

Sarah 5 agapanthus

The yellow daffodils for which I have such an unfair dislike are done, and made way for May and June’s whites, blues and purples of narcissus,  iris, ceanothus and ajuga.  It's almost time for the great blue Agapanthus (pictured), which will appear in several College gardens during the summer. April saw warm sunny days, and a few overnight and early morning frosts. May has seen trees come into full leaf, and heralded the great Chelsea Flower Show (which I managed not to visit again, this year). Madingley Hall (our Institute HQ) has its own Open Gardens as part of the National Gardens Scheme this Sunday (May 31st), and the gardens here are looking magnificent. (Although the Hall is not open, you can visit the gardens during your stay if you wish.) As to the weather, it hasn’t become consistently warmer and drier as my elderly tortoise will attest, but then, this is England. It is at least staying lighter very much later into the evening. In short, it's June already (well, very nearly so, at the time of writing). Cambridge is preparing itself for the spectacle of full summer, and for your arrival.

We are making the last-minute preparations to the University of Cambridge International Summer Schools, too. The very last titles for plenary talks are coming in, our Cambridge Student Assistants (CSAs) have been appointed, and the countdown to the start of the programmes has begun. Exciting times!

Enrolments have grown rapidly since my last blog, with new enquiries and applications arriving daily. Bookings for excursions are mounting too. Several accommodation options are fully booked, but space is still available in the others. With regret, a very small number of courses has had to be cancelled: we can never predict application levels for particular courses. Everyone involved has been contacted, and places in alternative course choices have been assigned. Other courses are filling, but there are still places available for anyone who now finds themselves able to join us this summer. Latest news: we’ve been able to extend deadlines for the online booking option, for your convenience: full details appear on our ‘How to apply’ page.

Some very exciting plenary speakers and titles have been added since the last blog and the titles have now been added to the relevant plenary sections of the programmes accessible via the links below. There are too many to list them all here, but they include: Professor Sir Colin Humphreys on Illuminating the future and Dr Seán Lang on The BBC: broadcaster to the world (ISS I) Dame Barbara Stocking on How to change the world – climate change and food security (ISS II); Professor Chris Abell on Changing the way drugs are discovered and Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill on Herculaneum: a new light on the past (ISS III); Dr Judith Croston on The curious behaviour of black holes and Professor Andy Woods on Curious fluid flows (Science); Dr Frank Woodman on King’s College, still influential after 500 years; Professor David Carpenter on The texts of Magna Carta: new discoveries (Medieval Studies); Kelly Grovier on Word and image and Rachel Calder on The literary agent’s view (Creative Writing); Dr William Foster on Bill Colby and the CIA and Dr Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite on The Iron Lady and her enemies (History); Dr Joe Moshenska on “You’re laughing at yourselves!": the tragedy of laughter In Shakespeare and Cervantes (Literature); and Professor Catharine Edwards on Parallel lives of Boudicca and Agrippina the Younger (Ancient and Classical Worlds).

Aside from completing the list of c165 talks to complement the 186 courses we’re running this year, we’re just tightening the nuts and bolts, and oiling the cog-wheels of the machine that is the Summer Schools (that is, getting the logistics in place and cross-checking lists to make it all happen as it should).

And then we’re planning for 2016! Anyone coming to us this year plays a part in our future planning: we’ll be providing a feedback form for each programme, and we’ll want to hear your views before we make some of the decisions about the next cycle.

We’ll hope to see you here in Cambridge, very soon.

Sarah J Ormrod



Signs of Spring are all over the Madingley gardens: the snowdrops and hellebores are at their peak, but will shortly have to make way for the pesky daffodils whose job is to form a jubilant guard of honour either side of the Madingley Hall driveway for most of March. (Pesky? Because – with apologies to William and Dorothy Wordsworth – I don’t like daffodils, even though everyone else does!) The season is changing, and we’re moving into a new season in the ‘making’ of Summer Schools, too. Now that the courses are all in place, and displayed on the web pages and in the brochure, our focus is on responding to enquiries, processing incoming applications, planning the logistics (teaching rooms, daily rotas) and – crucially – completing the plenary series. Essentially, the Summer Schools are very largely built, but there is work to do in the coming weeks to finesse our offering, so that everything is ready for your arrival.

The list of accepted plenary invitations grows daily, and in conversations with speakers, we juggle diaries to slot these jigsaw puzzle pieces neatly into the available slots. Intriguing titles abound: Human life at the limits – the physiology of exploration; Ancient Egyptian mummies - curious puzzles and curious answers; The Iron Lady and her enemies; Asteroids and impacts; Naval heroes of the First World War - are there any?; Criminal gangs in medieval England; What Shakespeare did with Cleopatra; Serving a villain: Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII; How to change the world – climate change and food security… with many more to follow. We’ll be posting titles as they are finalised on the relevant programme pages.

Ideas for plenary speakers and talks come from all corners. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a request to a speaker whose talks have been very well received in the past. Sometimes it’s a new acquaintance who’s giving a talk for colleagues in the Institute of Continuing Education, or elsewhere in the University. The Festival of Ideas has recently finished, but it’s the Science Festival in Cambridge very shortly, and we have checked in their literature to see if there are bright ideas we can ‘steal’ to add to our own lists.

Those students who have already been accepted now have the opportunity to begin their conversations on the Online Resource Centre (the ORC), catching up with old friends returning for another Summer School, finding out who else is on the same courses or coming from the same country. We’re hoping people will share their knowledge of the city if they have been before, and use the chance to ask questions if they have not. What are the bookshops like? (Some really good booksellers, including several second-hand ones!) What day is market day, and what can I buy there? (There’s a market in the town centre every day, selling food, books, clothing, pottery, jewellery, and gifts. There’s a craft market on Saturdays.) What are the ‘must sees’ if I am on a rather tight budget? (Okay, I’ll leave it to the ORC foum to pick up these threads and provide more answers, and questions.)

Some 390 programme applications from students representing 30 nationalities have already been accepted, and other applications are being processed as I write. Several accommodation options are fully booked, but space is still available in the others. A number of courses are already recruiting well, and others are catching up fast. Among several at the head of the ‘leader-board’ so far are courses as diverse as The reform and rise of the Papacy, 1000-1215; The imperial French: Napoleon and after; Reading medieval letters; The reigns of William and Mary, and Anne, 1688; Romanesque Europe, 1100-50; Hamlet’s problems; Romanticising Shakespeare; The CIA in Cold War historical perspective; Reading Virginia Woolf; Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit: mystery and sedition; Women of power and property; How does your immune system work and International politics in a global age.

For accepted students, excursion tickets are now on sale, and that means people can add a trip to Canterbury, ‘the other place’, Hampton Court, Royal Greenwich, Lincoln, and plays at Stratford-upon-Avon or the Globe Theatre, depending on the dates of their programmes. There are also Cambridge walking tours on ‘arrival day’ afternoons.

Just listing some of the talks, the courses, and the venues brings Summer very much closer – a pleasing thought on a rather grey and rainy Spring day. There are still plenty of tasks for Spring, though. I had better sort out a few more plenary invitations.


Sarah J Ormrod, 26 February 2015

Ice floes

It’s distinctly chilly on some mornings, though as yet no ice on the lake at Madingley (which thought was in my mind as I did my own version of a Monet ice floes image for this year’s greeting card), and yet unseasonably warm on others. As greetings come in from around the world, we’ve seen deep snow from Norway, and heard that temperatures are still high in Singapore, very close to the Equator.

On cold evenings after work, I’ve been in front of the television. Most recently, I’ve been transfixed by a UK television series about the building of Guedelon Castle in France, using only medieval building techniques. Huge numbers will now see what is taking place: a C13th-century building project to span just 25 years, of which 15 have already expired. Recent episodes have discussed ochre pigments, stone cutting and the making of gambesons (arming coats). Fascinating stuff.

I’m intrigued because I visited the site in 2007, and it seems that a huge amount has been achieved in that time, although there is still a staggering amount to do. One has to admire vision on that scale, and it is humbling – for those of us who plan perhaps 5 years in advance – to think of builders who start great projects which are unlikely to be completely finished in a generation’s time. (We have only to think of the chequered history of our own famous landmark – King’s College Chapel – to be reminded that long-term building projects are subject to change along the way. King’s is recognised worldwide, not least because of the broadcast on Christmas Eve of the service of lessons and carols. I hadn’t realised the broadcasting was begun in 1928, three generations ago.)

A great deal can happen in a generation: I spoke the other morning to a group of US undergraduates in Cambridge for a couple of days, hoping that some may be interested in participating in our programmes in the next few years, but was able to say with conviction that the Summer Schools will still be here if they cannot manage to get to us for another 20 or 25 years. Terry, who had brought the group over, noted that he and I first met over 19 years ago, when he first came to the programme. Time flies.

It does not seem long ago at all that we began to piece together the programme for 2015, and here we are, already with over 70 applications received, even before the site was ready for people to apply online.

If you look at the BBC website and are determined to visit Guedelon, then please ensure you preface that visit with participation in our Medieval Studies Summer School – perhaps taking the double course on Romanesque Europe, 1100-50: piety, power and patronage, or the one on pigments, or serfdom, or the medieval knight. If you have also been following the story of the discovery of the body of Richard III in what is now a car park in Leicester, you may also be interested in our Science Summer School course on Forensic archaeology and anthropology, or might to take a step back further in time with the course on Richard II (again, in Medieval Studies).

Over the holidays we shall no doubt have a re-run of seasonal films (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol will be on somewhere, no doubt, and the third Hobbit is already in the cinemas), or find time to relax with a few good books. I may just be tempted to dip into the novels suggested by our Literature Summer School courses: Little Dorrit, another read of Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, or maybe Spenser’s Faerie Queene? Or I may just spend the time painting more icy rivers, walking, visiting family and friends and re-charging batteries ready for the New Year.

As the International Programmes team takes a brief respite over the festive season, we hope you will consider courses and send in an application, to greet us on our return to the office early in the New Year. Applications will be accepted in order of receipt.

I let out a whoop of delight when I learned just a few minutes ago that 101 applications have already been received. That is splendid news, and I cannot wait to see the numbers when I return in January.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Sarah J Ormrod, 19 December 2014


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The University of Cambridge 2015 International Summer Schools brochure has arrived, and is a very handsome affair. The cover image, Low Sun, Cambridge by artist Bruce Yardley, positively glows with warmth: very cheering on a chilly winter’s day. Those who have been to Cambridge should recognise the view, looking towards King’s College Chapel from Trinity Street, just near the Porters’ Lodge at Gonville and Caius (one of the Colleges where Summer School participants can choose to live) and Michaelhouse (now a church and café, but the name harks back to a much earlier foundation, the subject of an interesting article by writer Susanna Gregory). Bruce Yardley’s painting has been a wonderful image for us this year, fitting the different format we need for the posters and flyers produced in July and September, for the website, and for the poster. The colours harmonise with our Interdisciplinary Terms I, II and III banding. All a great success, but the brochure cover image is just one of many hundreds of jigsaw puzzle pieces we have needed to put in their correct positions before the launch of the programmes, ready to receive applications.

The process of preparation is ongoing: we are beginning to piece together the plenary series, to fit intriguing themes such as: Truth and fiction (Shakespeare Summer School), Justice and law (Medieval Studies Summer School) or Heroes and villains (History Summer School). I was fortunate to be able to attend a lecture by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill at Madingley last Wednesday evening: an immensely enjoyable talk, and I am delighted that he will be contributing to the Ancient and Classical Worlds Summer School plenary series: Parallel lives.

Another task in hand is an update to our website – not just the addition of new information for the 2015 International Summer Schools programme, but also to make it much more user-friendly. Bear with us as we work on this in the immediate future, and as a longer-term project (including our Online Resource Centre for accepted students, which will open in the New Year).

(There’s another project in the Spring to revise the whole Institute’s website, and participants in the 2014 programme will receive an email asking if they would be willing to help by completing a short survey about the site. If any of you looking at the Institute’s site for the first time would also like to participate, here’s a link to the survey, so that you can add your comments. We’d like responses to this by 10 December, please. Thanks for your responses to this.)

If you are new to our programmes, we hope the web gives you everything you need to know in order to apply for a Summer School place. If you are reading this and have been to our programmes before, the chances are that some of you will also shortly receive a printed brochure. Whilst we are mindful of environmental issues and have reduced our print run, we continue to print a limited number of these, knowing that many people still enjoy making their course choices from a booklet. It’s also easy to share with family and friends, and has been the reason - we are told - why a number of intending participants have been joined by family members, who read it and decide they want to come the Summer Schools, too! (You can request a copy of the printed brochure here.)

As I write, we enter the closing phase of 2014. It has been a momentous year in many ways: a year of remembrance, with many references to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. (I’m sorry I did not get to the Tower of London in time to see the poppies.) A former colleague and frequent contributor to the Summer Schools, Adrian Barlow, has written eloquently on War poetry in his blog. The anniversaries of that war continue, and we have a course on Poetry, politics and pain: poets of the First World War in Term I of the Literature Summer School, as well as a course on The Great War and literature in Term I of the Interdisciplinary Summer School.

As we look forward to 2015, we will be marking another round of anniversaries: Magna Carta (1215), Agincourt (1415), the Battle of Waterloo (1815), 70 years since the end of World War II (1945), 150 years since the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and 60 years since the publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, to list but a few. We’ll have plenary lectures on Magna Carta, on Agincourt, on Waterloo, and courses on Lewis Carroll, Mervyn Peake and J R R Tolkien as well as J R R Tolkien and modern fantasy.

Mindful of topical issues, we have courses on the Science Summer School on Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases and Geoengineering the climate.

Four joint Programme Directors, who are also teaching courses, will each head up one week of the Science Summer School: Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright, Dr Corinne Duhig, Dr Hugh Hunt and Dr James Grime. Whilst she has played a crucial role by arranging the courses for the 2015 Literature Summer School, Dr Jenny Bavidge will be on sabbatical during July, so Dr John Lennard will act as Programme Director for Term I, and Dr Fred Parker for Term II. Jenny will be back with us for 2016.

Back at this year’s courses, we are always intrigued to see which courses fill first. Will it be one of the new subject areas? Perhaps writing for stage and radio, or television and film in the Creative Writing Summer School; or Romanesque Europe in the Medieval Summer School? With a range of subjects covering everything from Evolution evidence, fossils and the Assyrian Empire, though to macroeconomics, data science and the modern graphic novel, we’re hoping there is something for everyone.

Sarah J Ormrod, 3 December 2014

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In writing this blog I had to weigh up two options. On the one hand, it's Nobel week and we're celebrating world-breaking scientific endeavours that include the discovery, by UCL's John O'Keefe, of the brain's equivalent of a GPS system that stops us getting lost. There's also the Japanese team who have revolutionised the way we light up our homes and workplaces thanks to their pioneering work on gallium nitride-based blue LEDs; and then there are the chemists who found a way to use a light microscope to see details inside cells that are smaller than the light waves themselves.

These are amazing advances, but while all this scientific back-slapping is going on, the dark cloud on the horizon is the emerging ebola epidemic in West Africa and the warning undercurrent that comes with it.

At the time of writing at least 7,000 people have been infected and half of those have died. The CDC in America also estimate that, because the level of reporting is so poor, the numbers can, in all likelihood, be doubled or even tripled. And because the rates of infection appear to be growing exponentially, tens of thousands, or even millions, might ultimately be affected.

To put the scale of the present situation into perspective, since the first recorded case of ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo 38 years ago there have been fewer than 2,500 deaths documented in total.

So this single present outbreak is already three times larger than the entire ebola deathtoll ever. It's also no longer just an African problem. The West has had its own wake-up call this week as the US and Spain, countries previously regarded as immune to the threat thanks to modern medicine, have reported imported cases of the condition and, despite strict infection-control guidelines and practices, onward transmissions of ebola on their home soil.

What is remarkable though is that, while ebola is terrifying and dramatic in its impact when it causes an outbreak, it appears to be a relatively easy agent to fight. Experimental vaccines tested so far on animals have been impressively effective, protecting against even injection of the live ebola virus. But because they are at a test stage, these agents, which will be critical if we're to nip this outbreak in the bud, are nowhere near ready for mass production. Trials are only now getting underway of human versions of the vaccines in Oxford, UK, and the US. "Way too late," many are saying, to prevent the inevitable.

So why is it that, nearly 40 years after ebola first surfaced, the world finds itself in a state of panic, and up to ten thousand people are dead, owing to a bug that's probably preventable thanks to scientific research done decades ago? The answer is that ebola was regarded as someone else's problem. It was a tropical disease of low importance and (presumed to be) constrained by geography and climate to a part of the world that held little economic interest to the rest of us. But therein lies a salutary lesson: because if even a tiny fraction - less than 1% - of what the present outbreak is now costing the world in terms of lost productivity, humanitarian aid and human lives lost had been spent 20 years ago to develop an ebola vaccine, we probably wouldn't be in this position now. It's easy to dismiss tropical diseases as an issue that won't affect the West, but the present situation is a warning shot across our bows that we ignore at our peril.

Even over the relatively short time that I've been a virologist we've seen several potential pandemic agents emerge: SARS appeared in 2003, bird flu has been an ever-present threat since the late nineties, swine flu struck in 2009, MERS-Cov, the SARS-like agent from the Middle East, appears to be widespread in camels and can kill susceptible humans, and now ebola has taken everyone by surprise. What connects all of these outbreaks is that, by and large they, have all stemmed from poor countries.

Emerging infections amongst humans are overwhelmingly zoonoses - in other words infections that originate in an animal and jump into humans.
The places where this is most likely to happen are under-developed nations, with poor healthcare infrastructure, poor sanitation, high population densities and close contact between humans and wild animals.
Once it's established in humans, however, an emerging disease is no longer constrained by habitat of its original host and can go global.
HIV, which has infected and killed over 70 million people worldwide, originated in one small part of colonial Africa in the early 1900s when the chimpanzee disease SIV spread into locals who were butchering the animals for bushmeat.

What drove the HIV explosion was the very same recipe that is putting the modern world at risk from other emerging diseases like SARS and now ebola. These are urbanisation, population pressures and fast global transport networks. Add the predicted effects of climate change to the mixture and the resulting toxic cocktail is sobering to consider.

The bottom line is that, in our quest for immortality, cheaper trainers, a thinner iPhone, batteries that last longer and budget holidays on tap, we're cruising for a virological bruising. And although we've now got white LEDs, microscopes capable of seeing structures smaller than light itself and we understand how the brain helps us to find our way to the fridge and back to retrieve a microwave meal, we could easily fall victim to diseases preventable by much more ancient technology...

Have a look at our Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences courses.

Dr Chris Smith
Public Understanding of Science Fellow

Consultant Virologist, Cambridge University & Addenbrooke's Hospital
Managing Editor, The Naked Scientists:


Those who have just attended the International Summer Schools, will understand clearly why there has been no blog for a few weeks. As soon as students arrived, the thrilling whirligig of daily classes, plenary sessions, meal times, conversations, spun us from one day to the next. Our heads (the students’ and mine too, as I managed to hear at least one plenary talk a day) filled with facts, connections, stories, insights. As Programme Director for ISS I, II and III, I chaired the morning series of lectures on ‘Achievement’ and avidly took notes, collecting influences, illuminations and unexpected connections.

I learned what great ‘Achievers’ have in common; about Archbishop Matthew Parker’s obsession with books; what glorious, sinuous and organic buildings can be made of mud brick and ingenuity; the origins of several British honours, and arguments for and against in the latest thinking on whether we should now be planning to engineer the climate. (The recording of the debate on this last topic can be found here.) All this was just part of week 1!!

Week 2 plenaries found me listening to a Nobel-prize-winner talking about stem cells; the University’s part-time ceremonial officer talking about ‘The trappings of achievement’ – with explanations of heraldic achievements which resonated nicely with a week1 talk about the honours system; the latest thinking on the Ukrainian crisis from the former British ambassador to Moscow; the making of Charlton Heston’s El Cid; the achievement of Churchill in a few days in May 1940; and ways that millions of ordinary people are helping scientists to discover new planets via the Zooniverse – a project in which a former Resident Assistant-turned-Scientist is now heavily involved.

Some of Week 3’s talks had me re-visit my background as an art historian; tested me to the limit on logic and mathematics; offered a sobering reflection on what poetry can achieve in times of war; gave food for thought on health in the workforce; and explained the measures scientists are taking in order to save the city of Venice from flooding.

In week 4, we welcomed back David Starkey, who gave an amusing and thought-provoking take on ‘Consorts and first ladies’ in history. I heard the history of Cambridge’s best-known building, King’s College Chapel; revelled in talks on art crime and on evolution; and now have a new take on a number of classic film endings.

In weeks 5 and 6, I was instructed and entertained by the talk on English dialects; heard Creative Writing Summer School talks from Louis de Bernières and Wendy Cope – both writers whose work I greatly admire; heard a talk on medieval manuscripts that was illuminating in so many ways that I scribbled notes furiously – and probably illegibly. The former CEO of Oxfam, Dame Barbara Stocking was thought-provoking on ‘Dilemmas in doing good’ – the difficulties encountered in fund-raising and taking action to offer relief to people suffering from the effects of poverty, famine and war. ‘The shortlist’ was a wonderful evening of student readings of their own (very impressive) work selected for the Creative Writing Summer School prizes.

In week 7, the Hanseatic League Summer School taught me a terrific amount in a very short time, about travel, trade, furs, Prussian crusades, geography, and King’s Lynn. It was a wonderful way to end the Summer, full of ideas for next year…

I’ve been less than succinct about these recollections, but even then, I’ve had to leave out so many great talks, and haven’t even started on all of the other wonderful memories of people, conversations and events, and the fun of meeting students from all over the world. I make no apology for focusing here on my own experience: I firmly believe that these programmes have a profound influence on all of us – whether we are at the start of our careers, or later in our working lives, as organisers, assistants, teachers or students. For me, there is immense satisfaction in seeing the year’s plans come to fruition in these fact- and action-filled weeks. The student experience is paramount, as is the experience for those who teach, and those who work to make the programmes a success. The fact that I get to hear lectures at all is a huge bonus, and that snatched hour of lectures here and there reminds me what the programmes are really about. They inspire me to make connections, and to think of new courses and programmes of study, new ways of learning. As I scribble notes about the talks, I fill the margins with reminders and ideas.

My experience, of course, has just been to touch the tip of an iceberg of learning… glimpses snatched between the essential wheels of administration which our team turn steadily in the background, to ensure all runs to plan. The students are able to immerse themselves in classes, discussions over meal times, complete series of morning and evening lectures, and a great deal more besides.

So, to capture more than just my snapshot of summer 2014, we are inviting recollections from this past summer’s participants.

Send us your entry for our ‘recollection collection’. We’d like you to be much more succinct than I have been here, and to focus on that one moment that sums up for you the best of your summer school experience. Entries are limited to 120 words each. Send entries to

Add to each entry your name, home country and which Summer School(s) you attended. We’ll publish some of them in the next few weeks and build up a ‘recollection collection’ on the web between now and when the application process opens in December for 2015.

We look forward to hearing from you.


Sarah J Ormrod, September 2014


erica bithell 180px

Occasionally I am asked what made me choose to study the physical sciences. I think the questioner is usually hoping that I will cite a significant person or event: an inspirational teacher perhaps, a particularly transformational moment in technology, some key discovery, or perhaps a famous scientist.

It is true that I was fortunate to have teachers who taught with enthusiasm and without gender bias. My earliest memory of a world event is of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon. I remember clearly the chemistry lesson in which I first learnt about the structure of the atom, and (at about the same time) watching the documentary series ‘The Ascent of Man’, in which Jacob Bronowski recounted the unfolding story of science and technology. At school, I read over and over the biography of the Nobel prize-winning crystallographer Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, whose photograph hung on a wall in the school dining room.

I have certainly been influenced by all of these, but I should make a confession. I took science subjects because they were the ones in which I found that I got the quickest and most satisfying return. A more positive spin on this would be to say that I enjoy solving problems. In science the problems are right in front of you, from the very first moment, and you can pick away at understanding them piece by piece.

You are introduced to big questions on day one. Why does ice float? Why do magnets stick together? What does an atom look like? Where is the end of the Universe? Often, there are quite simple descriptive explanations but all repay closer examination. The simple descriptions fail to tell the whole story and the sense of satisfaction increases as one responds to the challenge of understanding each level of a progressively more detailed picture.

In recent weeks I have been repeatedly turning over the question of how I then came to have a professional interest in this area. June has seen something of a flurry of activity reminding us that women and girls in the UK remain significantly under-represented in the physical sciences and technology, but that much can and must be done to challenge and improve this state of affairs.

Campaigns to address gender stereotyping in toys have received a boost with LEGO’s announcement that the user-designed set of female scientist minifigures will be taken forward for production. The Opening Doors project has been announced to ensure that no student is deterred from studying certain subjects because of their gender. This is a response to the Closing Doors research and the IoP’s 2012 report 'It’s Different for Girls' which revealed that 49% of maintained co-educational schools sent no girls on to take A-level physics in 2011. Overall, just 20% of students progressing to A-level physics are girls, a figure which has changed little in a quarter of a century.

Campaigns of this nature most often emerge from recognising the need to educate and equip all young people with the right skills for the future. The focus tends to be on the wide open and largely unknown future of our young students. By contrast, most lifelong learners that I meet on science courses at ICE have a somewhat different agenda. They are people who have accumulated a great deal of experience and their horizons are wide. The need to acquire specific skills is less pressing, but the desire to understand and interpret is, if anything, much stronger. They want to distinguish the adventurous but achievable from the fanciful, to differentiate a genuine assessment of risk from scaremongering, to tell the difference between polemic and reasoned debate.

Cambridge is a fantastic place in which to engage with science and technology, and it is part of the fabric of the city. For a good number of years, I worked in the same rooms as had been used decades previously by James Clerk Maxwell, Ernest Rutherford and W L Bragg (and that was another scientifically inspirational experience). Each year the University’s lecture theatres and departments fill to capacity with visitors to the Cambridge Science Festival and Festival of Ideas. Those who cannot get to the city in person can follow the regular Research News postings. Cambridge’s success comes not from repeating what is known to work already, but from pushing the boundaries into the future.

But the fact remains that to get below the surface of all that is happening in science and technology – to dig a little deeper into those big scientific problems and to understand the next layer – takes a bit more than following the popular scientific press, or keeping up with the latest documentaries. Our courses for lifelong learners in the Physical Sciences at ICE are designed to meet this need. Our aim is always to make science accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and to enable our students to share in our own enthusiasm for our subject.

Dr Erica Bithell, ICE Academic Director in Physical Sciences

Physical science courses at ICE in 2014

Weekends at Madingley Hall:

Part-time University qualifications:

Science Summer Schools (6 July – 2 August 2014)

Erica on 'Deconstructing structures'

If your scientific appetite has been whetted, you can watch a video of a talk that Dr Erica Bithell gave as part of the 2012 Cambridge Science Festival.



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