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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.

 

 
Harbour copy blog

Well, the Summer School is in sight! June beckons,and we may well have a sunny 'Bank Holiday' weekend in the UK.

Please note: this is the last week for online enrolments for the International Summer Schools. From 1 June onwards, we ask applicants for the Summer Schools to download an application form and then fax or post it to us.

There will still be another hundred or more applications coming in before the Summer, so if you do not have time to submit your application before the online route closes next weekend, you can simply submit your application in one of those two other ways.

As June beckons, we are putting the finishing touches to the 150+ plenary lecture titles, and I already have a long list of lectures I would really like to hear myself, if timetabling permits. Who – even amongst non-scientists like myself - is not curious enough to want to hear: How to find a planet from your sofa; Human life at the limits – the physiology of exploration; The science of saving Venice or Astronomy: curiosity and the need to know? Who’s not going to be more than a little intrigued by what will be covered in talks on Naughtiness in children’s literature; Grisly cuisine or Shakespeare and savagery? Or more than a little moved by trying to understand - in this year of anniversaries - What did the First World War achieve?

I am drawn to subjects such as (K)night school: the education of the medieval knight; Illuminated manuscripts, or Say no more, roll credits: achieving the perfect film ending. In this first year of the Creative Writing Summer School, I really want to hear the conversations with writers such as Louis de Bernières and Wendy Cope.

But then there are subjects which demand attention: the debate on Is it time to think about engineering the climate? or lectures on Achieving peace in the Middle East; Achieving order: the Ukrainian crisis and the international system; or Go-betweens for Hitler.

I was recently given a book by Daniel James Brown: The Boys in the Boat, about the crew from Seattle who rowed to Olympic victory in Berlin in 1936, which kept me gripped on a long journey, and into which I have dipped eagerly as bedtime reading since. I’m about to finish it, and have been completely drawn in to the worlds it depicts: America in the Depression, the rise of political power in pre-WWII Germany, and the punishing but exhilarating world of competitive rowing. The references to training, stamina, race-plans and, above all, teamwork resonate, of course, at a time when our International Programmes’ team is limbering up for everyone’s arrival and the journey through the seven weeks of Summer Schools.  

The image is of a very different boating kind. Whilst I have always loved boats and water, this book offered a different angle: I now know more about another time and another world, and am reminded that there is always something new to learn. In attending lectures some years ago about cricket, I built on a scant knowledge gleaned only by osmosis, in watching the sport on television with my father, and so will try to hear this year’s talk LBW: a brief introduction to cricket by an academic who’s also giving us a course on the Protestant Reformation! I’m also finding out more than I ever knew about the Hanseatic League, and am keen to hear some of those talks, too.

There are some 150+ plenaries this summer, and most people will get to hear 15 or so as part of their stay. Whilst I shall hear many more in my role as Programme Director for the Interdisciplinary Programme, and as part of the IP team chairing evening talks, the need to focus on all programmes at once means that I will not –alas – be able to have the full immersion that individual Summer School participants enjoy: plenaries, special subject class sessions, evenings, and all those conversations which carry on the debate outside the classroom.

I shall enjoy the plenaries, however, and look forward to hearing about the classroom experience from the perspective of course deliverer and student.

See you soon!

Sarah J Ormrod

 
Harbour copy blog

Well, the Summer School is in sight!  June beckons, and it may well be a warm and sunny 'Bank Holiday' weekend here in the UK.

Please note: this is the last week for online enrolments for the International Summer Schools. From 1 June onwards, we ask applicants for the Summer Schools to download an application form and then fax or post it to us.

There will still be another hundred or more applications coming in before the Summer, so if you do not have time to submit your application before the online route closes next weekend, you can simply submit your application in one of those two other ways.

As June beckons, we are putting the finishing touches to the 150+ plenary lecture titles, and I already have a long list of lectures I would really like to hear myself, if timetabling permits. Who – even amongst non-scientists like myself - is not curious enough to want to hear: How to find a planet from your sofa; Human life at the limits – the physiology of exploration; The science of saving Venice or Astronomy: curiosity and the need to know? Who’s not going to be more than a little intrigued by what will be covered in talks on Naughtiness in children’s literature; Grisly cuisine or Shakespeare and savagery? Or more than a little moved by trying to understand - in this year of anniversaries - What did the First World War achieve?

I am drawn to subjects such as (K)night school: the education of the medieval knight; Illuminated manuscripts, or Say no more, roll credits: achieving the perfect film ending. In this first year of the Creative Writing Summer School, I really want to hear the conversations with writers such as Louis de Bernières and Wendy Cope.

But then there are subjects which demand attention: the debate on Is it time to think about engineering the climate? or lectures on Achieving peace in the Middle East; Achieving order: the Ukrainian crisis and the international system; or Go-betweens for Hitler.

I was recently given a book by Daniel James Brown: The Boys in the Boat, about the crew from Seattle who rowed to Olympic victory in Berlin in 1936, which kept me gripped on a long journey, and into which I have dipped eagerly as bedtime reading since. I’m about to finish it, and have been completely drawn in to the worlds it depicts: America in the Depression, the rise of political power in pre-WWII Germany, and the punishing but exhilarating world of competitive rowing. The references to training, stamina, race-plans and, above all, teamwork resonate, of course, at a time when our International Programmes’ team is limbering up for everyone’s arrival and the journey through the seven weeks of Summer Schools.  

The image is of a very different boating kind. Whilst I have always loved boats and water, this book offered a different angle: I now know more about another time and another world, and am reminded that there is always something new to learn. In attending lectures some years ago about cricket, I built on a scant knowledge gleaned only by osmosis, in watching the sport on television with my father, and so will try to hear this year’s talk LBW: a brief introduction to cricket by an academic who’s also giving us a course on the Protestant Reformation! I’m also finding out more than I ever knew about the Hanseatic League, and am keen to hear some of those talks, too.

There are some 150+ plenaries this summer, and most people will get to hear 15 or so as part of their stay. Whilst I shall hear many more in my role as Programme Director for the Interdisciplinary Programme, and as part of the IP team chairing evening talks, the need to focus on all programmes at once means that I will not –alas – be able to have the full immersion that individual Summer School participants enjoy: plenaries, special subject class sessions, evenings, and all those conversations which carry on the debate outside the classroom.

I shall enjoy the plenaries, however, and look forward to hearing about the classroom experience from the perspective of the course deliverer and student.

See you soon!

Sarah J Ormrod

 

 
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At the start of April we had a Madingley Lecture given by Professor Stephen Emmott entitled If Donald Rumsfeld were a Scientist, which picked up on the now well-known (and both ridiculed and revered) response on known knowns and unknown unknowns given by Donald Rumsfeld, as United States Secretary of Defense, to a question at a US Department of Defense news briefing about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups:

“ … there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.” [February 2002]

Stephen’s Madingley Lecture acknowledged that the past half century have been filled with, and defined by, amazing scientific advances and yet some of the fundamental building blocks of biology, the brain and the biosphere remain poorly understood, i.e. remain as known unknowns or indeed as unknown unknowns. Stephen is probably right: for the future, we need a different sort of scientist, one who thinks differently and is trained to ask different questions, rather than trained to solve known questions … but see what you think:

View the video of Stephen’s Madingley Lecture »

Stephen Emmott is Head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research Cambridge and author of 10 Billion. He leads an international, interdisciplinary research programme and scientific team, centred on Microsoft's Computational Science Laboratory, in Cambridge, whose goal is to make, enable and accelerate transformational advances in science in areas of societal importance. Stephen's team is responsible for developing the Madingley Model – so called because it was first proposed during a meeting at Madingley Hall (ICE’s home) between UNEP-WCMC and the CEES group at Microsoft Research.

Given its genesis, we felt a particular pride hearing Stephen talk about the Madingley Model, which, as the dedicated website explains, is a ground-breaking global ecosystem model (GEM) that “simulates how the structure and function of ecosystems at global scales emerge from the underlying ecology of individual organisms ... simulating the fate of every single organism on Earth, from the smallest to the largest, on land and in the sea, for tens or hundreds of years”. Or, just a little more sensationally, as the Daily Mail reported earlier this week: “The computer that plays GOD: Scientists design simulator that predicts the fate of all life on Earth”.

GEMs were thought to be impossible, too complex and too many unknowns, and that was the opening premise for the meeting at Madingley Hall but Stephen’s team thinks about things differently and what resulted was the Madingley Model, as published this week, alongside a suite of videos explaining ecological processes ranging from reproduction to eating to death and much more: “Emergent Global Patterns of Ecosystem Structure and Function from a Mechanistic General Ecosystem Model”.

Following from huge climate science simulation models, the Madingley Model aims to harness computational power to simulate whole ecosystems and, furthermore the software is open-source so there are no barriers to scientists anywhere getting involved. However, it is not without controversy … far from thinking that it could improve understanding of the biosphere and help to inform policy decisions about biodiversity and conservation, some doubt the model’s ability to predict an ecosystem’s behaviour with any certainty … either way, a model to watch!

If you’re interested in ecology, biodiversity and conservation then join us at Madingley Hall for BioBlitz 2014 on 27-28 July, when experts, volunteers and members of the public will be racing against time to count as many species of animals and plants as possible, or have a look at our wide range of courses in these subjects.

Our next Madingley Lecture – all are welcome – is on 6 May 2014: What do we mean by 'music'? (and how can we make sense of it?), given by Professor Ian Cross, Director of the Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge.

 

We are part of the University of Cambridge and provide part-time and short courses for adults.

Sign up for news about our courses and events: www.ice.cam.ac.uk/e-news

Become a Friend of Madingley Hall: www.ice.cam.ac.uk/friends

 
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Just before I was born, Peter Berger in his Invitation to Sociology lamented that, ‘There are very few jokes about sociologists. This is annoying… but it may also be instructive. The dearth of jokes about sociologists indicates ... that there is a certain ambiguity in the images that people have of them...’ (1963, p.2).

I am now inclined – having studied, taught and researched in this discipline for well over 30 years – to think that Berger was wrong. There are far too many jokes about sociologists. I’ve heard most of them. Some of my favourites include those pertaining to spoof definitions of the discipline. For example, ‘Sociology is the study of people who do not need to be studied, by people who do’ (cited in Meighan 1981). Or, more recently,

‘Sociology is a cult based around the intellectual pseudoscience of studying society. Originally popular with old bearded men who smoke pipes whilst reclining in arm-chairs, it has now managed to find a younger generation of converts thanks to its introduction into colleges and universities. Synonymous with Scientology, Sociology uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop and refine a body of knowledge and theory about human social activity…’ (Uncyclopedia 2013)

In one respect, at least, Berger (1963) was correct: there remains considerable ambiguity in the public understanding of sociology. What is sociology? How is society studied by sociologists? What, if anything, is the utility of the discipline? Big questions. Indeed, this status ambiguity also pervades the academic community within higher education more generally, especially among those researchers inclined to view themselves as natural scientists (correctly speaking, of course, researchers engaged in a social enterprise labelled ‘natural science’).   

Berger’s (1963, p.25) answer to these questions was to advocate sociology as ‘a form of consciousness’ promoting a critical understanding of the relationship between individual biography, institutions and society. Hence sociology is a humanistic discipline, similar to philosophy or history, capable of: debunking common sense; looking behind the social construction of reality; and discovering human meanings and values to explain society in a non-prejudiced manner. Berger also cautioned sociologists against ‘humorless scientism’ since the dominance of a ‘foolproof methodology’ in the discipline would ‘lose the world of phenomena that it originally set out to explore’ (1963, p. 165).

Now, this is an intentionally humorous, polite and, unfortunately, benign definition and vision of sociology. At one time I would have agreed. However, years of teaching and research in Cambridge have persuaded me otherwise (Kettley 2007, 2012). So what would my preferred definition and re-invitation to sociology look like?

Negative definitions are generally to be avoided in academic work. In this case, however, I will make an exception. Let’s start by saying what sociology is not and then proceed to my preferred definition. Most definitions of sociology, qua Berger (1963), deploy antimonies or dichotomies to characterise sociology, its method and its utility. For example, sociology is either the scientific study of society, using a statistical method, to produce generalisations about behaviour which facilitate prediction and/or social engineering. Or, alternatively, sociology is the study of individual meanings and motivations, analysed through qualitative and narrative techniques, focused on understanding the social construction of reality to ‘give voice’ to disadvantaged people (Kettley 2012, p. 64).

These opposing definitions of sociology, problematically, trot out tired dichotomies in social science such as the supposed distinctions between: society and the individual; natural and social science; the quantitative and qualitative; pattern identification and causation; and social control and individual agency. In these cases, defining sociology, including its methods and utility, becomes a self-indulgent debate about the possibility of doing social science, given our subject matter is human creativity and freedom, rather than the production of powerful explanations of patterned behaviour – the social in sociology – and their underlying causes. (Kettley 2012, p. 38).

This conflation of the possibility of doing sociology with the study of the genuine causes of social behaviour has been labelled the ‘social scientific fallacy’ (Holwood and Stewart 1991, p. 42). If we accept such epistemological anxiety about the definition of sociology, its method and its utility, furthermore, there is little wonder that: 1) there is continued public and academic confusion and scepticism about the discipline; and 2) there has been a proliferation of jokes about sociologists, contrary to Berger’s (1963) wisdom, because sociologists have confused their scholarly activity with the object of their inquiry (patterns of social behaviour and their underlying causes).

Drawing on researchers such as Stewart, Prandy and Blackburn (1980) and Holmwood and Stewart (1991), the so-called Cambridge school, I prefer a definition of sociology that foregrounds the unity of various strands of the discipline (Kettley 2012). Sociology can only make sense of its object of inquiry – the underlying causes of patterned social behaviour – when we reject antinomies and synthesise competing traditions.

In this approach, sociology is the empirical investigation of patterned social behaviour, including deviations from such patterns, which tries to provide powerful explanations of the underlying causes of these patterns (and variations in them spatially and temporally). It is unproductive logic and labour to think of the object of sociological inquiry as either individual behaviour or society. Rather society is a relational construction – it is patterns and structures reproduced and transformed through human interaction – and the object of our empirical inquiry is precisely these relationships (not individuals or society).

It follows, logically, that sociology requires both an effective social psychology – to understand the motives behind individual behaviour – and an effective statistical method to explore how patterns of, for example, inequality come into being, are reproduced and occasionally transformed (Mennell 1980). Therefore, the method of sociology is both qualitative and quantitative, science and art, given its empirical study of the underlying causes of patterned behaviour. The discipline requires a mixed methodology. It makes no sense, moreover, to dichotomise the natural and social sciences, despite their varied objects of inquiry, for natural science is a social enterprise as fallible as any social science (Kettley 2012, p. 77). Nor does the natural world exist somehow independent of human relations to it.

Finally, not only is sociology an enterprise based on synthesising various intellectual traditions, but it also has utility. Sociology is a progressive discipline, it possesses a metamorphic capacity, for once the patterns of social relationships have been established and their underlying causes discovered it is possible to advocate social interventions and policies to change them. For example, much of my own research examines gender and social class inequalities in educational attainment and in access to higher education, and seeks to improve the educational experiences and outcomes of disadvantaged groups through curriculum innovation and changed education policy (Kettley 2007). A sociology based on the synthesis of intellectual traditions has utility for changing social life for the better. In an age of austerity and, for example, growing income inequality this is no joke and, unlike Berger (1963), I would invite or, perhaps, re-invite you to sociology not as a form of consciousness raising, but as a progressive intellectual and social force seeking to promote social justice (Dorling 2012).
 
If, like me, you are interested in competing methodological and theoretical traditions in sociology and the study of social differences and inequalities, the Institute offers a range of courses from non-accredited, open access programmes to full Master of Studies (MSt) degrees. In addition, the Institute is now offering an accredited Undergraduate Certificate in Social Sciences which provides a disciplinary-based introduction to Sociology, Politics and Psychology. The Institute also provides a Master of Studies in Advanced Subject Teaching which allows English and History teachers to update their subject-specialist knowledge, undertake classroom research and complete a dissertation. You are cordially invited.

Dr Nigel Kettley, University Senior Lecturer and ICE Academic Director in Education and Social Science

References

Berger, P L (1963) Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. New York: Doubleday.

Dorling, D (2012) Fair Pay. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Holmwood, J and Stewart, A (1991) Explanation and Social Theory. London: Macmillan.

Kettley, N (2007) Educational Attainment and Society. London: Continuum.

Kettley, N (2012) Theory Building in Educational Research. London: Continuum.

Meighan, R (1981) A Sociology of Educating. London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Mennell, S (1980) Sociological Theory: Uses and Unities (2nd edn). Walton-on-Thames: Nelson.

Stewart, A, Prandy, K and Blackburn, R M (1980) Social Stratification and Occupations. London: Macmillam.

Uncyclopedia (2013) Sociology. http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Sociology (accessed 03.04.14)

 
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What happened to January and most of February? The time has flown. The steady ticking of the clock over the weeks between now and April mark ‘a time of making’ for International Programmes, following on from brochure completion. Over 300 enrolments are in, with more pending. The next layers of preparation, running in parallel with the processing of these applications and responding to enquiries, involve the posting of completed course materials on the online resource centre for accepted students, the finalising of plenary lecture titles and dates, excursion-planning, and a host of process updates, so that the machinery we put in place runs like clockwork.

I bought a clock at the end of December, to hang in the place where my grandparents’ clock used to be, as that one has gone to my sister. It’s not identical to that ‘Vienna Regulator’, but very close, and it is pleasing to have the gentle ticking and strident strike at the heart of the house. I’m less happy that it is rather fussier in design that the original, but delighted that it has at the top a wood and plaster eagle, a feature which was lost from my grandparents’ clock years before it came to us. It’s not a particularly fine bit of carving – there’s more than a hint of parrot to that eagle – but for me, this particular eagle is precious as a symbol of something found, to recall something long lost. It’s an innocent thing, in that context.

A glance through the office window to a bird-table sends butterfly-flitting thoughts to eagles, in general. I’m familiar with them through zoo visits as a child, raptor centre visits and television documentaries. Since our part of the UK rarely sees any very large birds in the sky (red kites are slowly returning, and there are a few buzzards, and the occasional heron comes over, on its way to the lake at the front of Madingley Hall), seeing an eagle in the wild is a rare treat for me. I have fine recollections of a train journey between Vancouver and Seattle, 18 or more years ago, watching sea eagles swooping for prey along the shoreline, and seeing some 11 or 12 altogether (an extended family of juveniles and adults) in a field a few years later, when driving with my own extended (surrogate) US family.

Still with eagles, my mind bounces to the famous Eagle pub in Cambridge, opened a year after the Great Fire of London, in 1667, and originally called the ‘Eagle and Child’. (There’s a pub of that name in St Giles in Oxford, known as the ’Bird and Baby’, frequented by C S Lewis and Tolkien. C S Lewis distributed proofs for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe there in 1950.) Our own ‘Eagle’ hosted Watson and Crick in 1953 as they announced their proposal for ‘the structure of life’: the discovery of DNA, and also boasts a ceiling covered in graffiti by World War II airmen.

Speaking of war, eagles (single, or double-headed) and hawks have been used as symbols of power and strength for thousands of years, in Ancient and in modern Egypt, in Ancient Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, by Arab States, by Spain, Germany, France and the USA. They’ve also appeared in medieval heraldry, and were used for their seal by several Hanse wool-trading guilds.

All of this thinking, from glance at a clock on the wall: networks of thoughts which tie in – on so many levels – to the chart on my office wall of courses for 2014…courses on Egypt and on Rome in the Ancient Empires Summer School; courses on international relations, crises and war and empire in the History Summer School and the three Terms of the Interdisciplinary Summer School; a course on Tolkien in the Literature Summer School; sessions on trade and trading ports in the Hanseatic League and – as a result of an email exchange just this morning – a plenary on heraldic achievement as part of the Interdisciplinary Summer School series.

The very process of recording the way the mind flits from one topic to another, or the way thoughts and recollections are triggered brings me to the memory and networks courses in the Science programme, and last, but not least, to the Creative Writing option, which might one day help me be a little more erudite in my blog writing!

Sarah J Ormrod

 
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On one of my recent visits to the Channel Island of Jersey, where I conduct some of my fieldwork on the heritage of the German Occupation of the Second World War, I was given a private viewing of one of the island’s newest archaeological discoveries. The Jersey Hoard was found in June 2012 and was judged to be the world’s biggest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered. Jersey Heritage’s conservator, Neil Mahrer, allowed me into his laboratory so I could see how the project was coming along.

Before I moved into the field of Conflict Archaeology around seven years ago, I was an Iron Age archaeologist, and so the hoard was particularly exciting for me to see. Sticking out of the massive clump of corroded green-coloured coins was a golden torque, a form of necklace which is usually associated with Iron Age hoards found in Norfolk. The most famous hoard of torques ever found in the UK comes from Snettisham, and these are on display in the British Museum.

The Jersey hoard is estimated to contain around 70,000 coins, as well as pieces of silver and gold jewellery, and it was found and excavated in one solid mass measuring 140 x 80 x 20 cm and weighing about three quarters of a ton. The coins are made of a silver-looking alloy called billon, a mixture of silver and copper, although during the conservation process (still in its very early stages) a gold coin was found and more, I predict, can be expected. The hoard was excavated and removed from the site as a large clump, complete with a 5cm covering of soil it so it wouldn’t dry out. That clump was wrapped in layers of a clear plastic film in order both to support and contain the hoard during excavation and conservation, to prevent it from breaking into pieces.

Since the hoard was brought to his lab, where it has been kept damp to prevent it drying out, Neil Mahrer’s job has been a busy one. He recently made an epoxy resin replica of the hoard, while it was still whole, and is now waiting to hear whether he will be given funding to purchase a laser scanner so that he can make a 3D virtual digital record of the hoard as it is dismantled. I was very pleased to be asked by Neil to write a letter of support for this important purchase.

Recording the hoard digitally in this fashion is very important; research in Iron Age studies over the last 20 years has revealed that the deposition of objects often shows a patterning which was governed by ritual concerns. If this patterning can be identified, it will facilitate a greater understanding of Iron Age cosmology and ritual practices in Jersey. Although thus far Neil has been able to work out that the hoard was deposited in a number of bags or packages of some sort, it will be revealing to be able to pinpoint precisely where in the hoard certain items were placed – items such as torques and jewellery which, currently, are peeping temptingly out of the corroded block.

Meanwhile, Neil’s job is a slow one: the hoard needs to be dismantled, one coin at a time, a job which he has estimated will take six to eight years for one person. His task will then be to record, clean and chemically treat each coin in turn to remove any corrosion. His conservation blog documents the process.

Talking to Neil about the laser scanner made me mull over the changes in the way that Iron Age coins have been treated and interpreted over time. We know that these coins were minted by the Coriosolites, an Armorican people who lived around 50BC in the area of modern-day St Malo and Dinan in France, just across the water from Jersey. In the past, archaeologists might have interpreted them as having been buried by Armoricans fleeing Roman invasion, to prevent Roman soldiers or others finding them in a time of conflict and uncertainty. Alternatively, they could have been payment to Iron Age Jersey people who fought as mercenaries in the Gallic Wars, alongside their kin across the water.

Today archaeologists might be more inclined to suggest that these coins were a diplomatic gift, or perhaps a ritual gift to the gods that no one had any intention of removing. The local papers joked that perhaps Jersey was an off-shore financial centre and tax haven 2,000 years ago!

While we cannot know for sure whether any of these interpretations (or even a combination of them) is correct (although we can make an educated guess at which one is wrong!), it is important for archaeologists to make sure that their interpretations are contextual and site-specific. Further excavation at the site of the coin hoard might help in this respect. Jersey (and the Channel Islands as a whole) is also acquiring a reputation for hoards; a few months after the coins were discovered, a late Bronze Age hoard of axe heads turned up just a few miles away.

Students who have registered for the Undergraduate Certificate or Diploma in Archaeology this coming Lent term will have an opportunity to learn more about these hoards. Those taking the ‘Prehistoric Peoples’ unit (part of the Certificate course) will be gaining an overview of the British Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages. Students on the Diploma course, meanwhile, will have an entire term devoted to Iron Age Britain. I hope that an Advanced Diploma student will be tempted to write a dissertation on the Jersey Hoard soon – this exciting discovery is crying out for further interpretation and Neil Mahrer has kindly given permission for such a student project. Applications are now open for those wishing to start an Advanced Diploma in autumn 2014!

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

 

   
emily caddick 180pxAlice in Wonderland

I recently watched Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988), an adaptation which mixes stop-motion animation with a live actor’s realisation of Lewis Carroll’s character Alice, in the setting of a bizarre Wonderland which often seems to all be crammed within a house.

Angela Carter mentions this film in a collection called On Strangeness (ed. Margaret Bridges, 1990, Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag). In an introduction to her story ‘The Curious Room’, Carter talks of an affinity between the surrealist aesthetic of Švankmajer’s work – which she describes as involving ‘the furious disruption of rationality’ – and the exploration of nonsense in Carroll’s stories.

The strangeness of the goings-on in Lewis Carroll’s work is part of what makes it philosophically interesting. For example, take its skilled pinpointing of what is absurd. For the Cheshire Cat to leave behind a bodiless grin is far more effective than, say, the idea of a bodiless mouth, because a grin is worn in a way a mouth is not – a grin is something which is done, and done by an embodied individual.

Another famous case is Humpty Dumpty’s claim to be able to make words mean whatever he wants, with his statement ‘There’s glory for you’ allegedly having meant ‘There’s a nice knock-down argument for you’. Humpty’s is not a theory many of us would endorse when trying to answer the questions of what meaning is and where it comes from. But a better theory should not only avoid fixing word-meaning by whimsy – it should also tell us why Humpty’s approach is perverse, and what this reveals about the role of the individual speaker in determining what they have said.

Communication is something so central to our interactions with one another that we often take it for granted until an occasion where it doesn’t work as we thought it would. For those who, like me, are interested in how communication underpins interpersonal exchanges and relationships, such occasions are important data. The Alice stories provide a study of possible breakdowns in mutual understanding between people. Some are extreme cases, like the impossibility of communication if the meanings of words are private rather than communal. (After all, if Humpty applies his strategy as a matter of course, there is no reason for Alice even to trust that his explicit definitions mean what she thinks they do!)

Others are versions of communicative problems more familiar from everyday discourse. The philosopher Paul Grice has argued that ‘conversational implicatures’ – where we manage to tacitly communicate something without explicitly saying it – can be understood in terms of mutual expectations concerning how one’s conversation partner will converse. For example, we generally have expectations that the person we are talking to will judge the things she says to be relevant to the topics of the conversation; and we have expectations concerning how much information a person should provide. Such expectations govern what it is to be conversationally cooperative. But Alice’s conversation partners often seem to be extremely uncooperative, at least by Alice’s standards and by ours. Why do they say the things they do to her? Are they trying to be helpful, or trying to be obstructive? Are they suggesting something she has failed to notice? Do they willingly flout or ignore Alice’s familiar communicative conventions? Do they operate with different sets of expectations which we need to try to understand?

It’s not just Alice’s understanding of others’ linguistic behaviour which is vulnerable in Wonderland and through the looking glass, but also her understanding of their behaviour more generally. Understanding somebody is a key to anticipating their behaviour. When we have difficulty coming up with reasons why others behave the way they do, we face a serious block to predicting their actions – and, in turn, a serious block to understanding them well enough to trust them. The behaviour of Alice’s companions is often alien (whether it’s advancing an argument which doesn’t add up, or engaging in insufficiently constrained beheading). Motives and interests are unclear. Characters often have a serious degree of unfathomability, which is why they are potentially dangerous to be around.

Work by philosophers like Donald Davidson has made a strong case for thinking that in order to make any sense of another person, you must work on the assumption that the other person is to some extent like you. We mustn’t suppose too much similarity, of course, else we would leave no space for the idea of difference between someone else’s outlook and our own. But enough similarity must be assumed to guide me in attributing beliefs and attitudes to the other person. When this assumption becomes unstable – as it sometimes threatens to in Wonderland – our chance of comprehending the other being, treating them as a person with thoughts and aims, starts to disappear.

The Alice stories bring our attention to the hazy line between strange goings-on which can nevertheless be interpreted (in principle and with effort) – and, on the other hand, the genuinely incomprehensible. By raising the question of what we can make sense of and how we do it, Carroll’s stories, and adaptations like Švankmajer’s, point us towards something which underpins how humans relate to one another.

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If you found this blog interesting, ICE offers several courses which pick up on its themes. If you are interested in surrealism in Alice and other films, you might enjoy our weekly course on Surrealism and film. If you’re interested in how literature raises philosophical questions and proposes answers, you might enjoy our online reading group Philosophy through literature, and if you’d like to reflect philosophically on how literature works, you might like Philosophy of literature: understanding other minds through fiction, in our Literature Summer School. Finally, if you’d like to know more about philosophy of language and communication, you might enjoy our weekend course, The meaning and purpose of words.

Dr Emily Caddick Bourne, ICE Academic Director for Philosophy

 
erica bithell 180pxtwelve days of christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas are a bridge between the twelve months of the preceding and of the following years. The count of twelve is widespread in our lives: twice twelve hours in day, twelve spans of five minutes in an hour, twelve inches in a foot. More of this counting later, but my own ‘count of twelve’ for the Christmas season is twelve science-related highlights from Cambridge University’s Research News feed, one from each month passed in 2013. This is an entirely personal selection, so do not be surprised if you detect a bias towards the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics (I am myself a materials scientist). New materials, new applications and fresh insights into how the physical world works sit quite comfortably alongside a seasonal sense of excitement!

In January, we learnt how synchrotron radiation has been used to image the backbone structure of the earliest four-legged animals.

February brought the news that a team at the University of Surrey, in collaboration with astronomers in Cambridge, have been able to use the behaviour of phosphorus atoms in silicon to model the extreme chemistry on the surface of a white dwarf star.

Back on earth, March brought the opening of a state-of-the-art gallium nitride growth facility, which will allow researchers to improve the techniques for growing high efficiency LEDs on cheap silicon substrates. Experiments planned for the new reactor have the potential to save the UK £1 billion per year in electricity usage.

At the beginning of the financial year, April saw the roll-out across Europe by Cronto, a Cambridge University spin-out company, of a security product designed to protect us from online malware by using visual symbols and dots to verify the authenticity of customer transactions.

May saw another materials development, of a flexible, stretchable sheet material with colours as vibrant and shimmering as an opal, but without the use of potentially toxic dyes or metals. The material has potential applications for security, textiles and sensing.

Early summer is evidently the season for new materials: ‘carbon nanotube candyfloss’ was reported in June, not for consumption by visitors to the Strawberry and Midsummer Fairs, but as a potential route to super-strong electrical wires.

If June is the time for fairs, July is the time to travel, and was also the month in which Cambridge University Library made the archive papers of the 18th and early 19th-century Board of Longitude available to the public via the Cambridge Digital Library project.

August saw a metaphorical journey into outer space, with observations of the Sagittarius A* black hole at the centre of our own galaxy’s Milky Way rejecting gas clouds when these are too hot to be sucked in and devoured.

Much closer to home, spectacular images were published in September of the first known example of functioning natural mechanical gears, in a plant-hopper insect.

With October and the onset of chillier weather, two Cambridge engineers published their analysis of the whistling sound generated by a traditional kettle. Although the underlying reason for the noise is a straightforward piece of physics, the details of when and how the sound is produced are much more complex.

The nature of policy-making is such that those taking and presenting decisions often require scientific input, and need to apply this information without necessarily sharing the same depth of technical knowledge. November saw the publication of a timely list of ‘twenty top tips’ to help non-scientists appreciate the limitations of scientific enquiry.

My twelve months’ selection ends in December with a biological materials development: the announcement that certain retinal cells could be printed into patterns using piezoelectric inkjet technology, with the potential for retinal repair procedures.

And what of the significance of the count of twelve itself? Is this just a pre-decimal, cultural relic? Not at all – 10 is a useful base for arithmetic calculation, but 12 is exceptionally useful for division into equal parts. Twelve is the smallest positive whole number divisible into two, three, four or six parts which are also whole numbers; 60 is the smallest which is similarly divisible into two, three, four, five or six parts. No surprise then that our measures of time and space put 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 360 degrees (6 x 60) into a circle. The Babylonians based their counting system upon multiples of 60, which you can learn more about at any time of year from the NRICH Mathematics resources (search for ‘Babylon’).

Our courses at ICE aim to bring the excitement of being part of Cambridge learning and research to as wide a range of students as possible. In the Physical Sciences we have courses coming up in the next few months on Geological Hazards and Geological History, Mathematics (not just as a spectator!), and Nanomaterials. I would encourage you to take a look at what is on offer, come and join us, and share in our scientific journey.

Dr Erica Bithell, ICE Academic Director in Physical Sciences

   
Bentley small

Looking at the spread of images for our 2013 photo competition, leafing again through the celebratory handbook, and gazing with fond memories at the images from the Summer parties (such as the bonnet of that splendid 1923 Bentley, in which you can just see reflected the image of the Madingley Hall façade), I am reminded that it has been an incredible journey through a remarkable year.

‘Memorable year’ news from the home (team) front: Claire Henry, our Academic Programme Manager who so ably produces the International Summer Schools’ publicity and manages the teaching room logistics and the Resident Assistant Team, has sent us the glad tidings - almost at year end - of the arrival of her baby - Oliver Jack - on 15 December.

Our 90th Anniversary has been memorable in so many ways, and comes to a close with the end of the calendar year.

On the subject of year end, and photos, our last 2013-related task has been to post the names of the winners of the photo competition, and you can see the winning entries on flickr, via a link on our home page.

It has been intriguing to see the images coming in, and to consider them from several angles: How closely do they conjure ’Summer Schools’? How good are they, technically? How are they different from the many Cambridge images we have seen before? We have a very worthy winner in the entry sent in by Eun Jung Kim from Korea, with the photo of books on a windowsill and King’s College Chapel beyond, taken – I think - from Gonville and Caius library. Our runners up are Valissa Hicks from the USA, with the image of Cambridge punts at night time, and Laurence Ghier from France sent in the image of a butterfly on a memorial stone.

Well done to Eun Jung, Valissa and Laurence! Prizes will be on their way to the winner and runners-up in the New Year. Thank you to everyone else who submitted images: we’ll scour these for ones which may work well in the 2015 brochure! We will also look at having different categories for the 2014 competition, and will announce these before the Summer Schools begin, so you can plan a few of your shots accordingly.

From year end to new beginnings: looking towards our 91st, we hope those of you on the mailing list for a paper copy of the brochure have received that by now, and – if you do get some holiday time in the next couple of weeks - that you will spend a few days browsing the paper copy, the web version or the individual web pages. Remember, if you are thinking of attending yourself, and happen to share the brochure or the weblink with any friend or family member, that we are always very happy indeed to see siblings, parents and any other combination of friends and relatives all attending the same year. Think of all those shared memories to recall in years to come, and of the opportunities to compete with a family member to see who can get the best essay grades. The record to beat for members of a single family attending in any one year is the Hardin family’s magnificent five, this past summer. No pressure!

I understand we have a remarkable 100+ applications in already, and are always excited to see these first arrivals. Among the courses first off the mark with enrolments are International politics in a global age; Archaeology in the crucible of civilisation; Sir Christopher Wren: architect in context; Shakespeare: the mature Comedies; Medieval architecture in Cambridge and The Protestant Reformation. But with the anniversary of the start of World War I in 2014, it is perhaps understandable that the runaway leaders at this stage are courses relating to that theme: Surprise attacks from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, Britain in the Great War and The British Empire in the Great War. With over 190 courses on offer, we hope you will find a combination which exactly matches your existing interests, or tempts you into new subject areas.

If you are planning to submit an application in the next couple of weeks, please note that our offices will be closed from the end of 23 December to early morning 2 January, but the online registration system and the fax will continue to receive any applications sent in whilst we are away. These will be processed in order of receipt, as soon as possible after we return.

All good wishes for the festive season from the International Programmes’ team, and all our very best wishes for 2014. I hope we meet you here in the Summer.

Sarah J Ormrod

   

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