Blogs

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

 
CU 2015 brochure cover 144px

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

 
chris smith 180px

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: www.thenakedscientists.com

 
sjo

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 intenquiries@ice.cam.ac.uk

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.

 

 
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

 

   
rjl3

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.

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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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