WhereHundith Hill Hotel, Lorton Vale, Cockermouth CA13 9TH
Whenusually the third Tuesday of each month,
7:30 to about 9:00pm

Our larger venue means that we no longer need to have a booking system. Just turn up! A reminder email will be sent about a week before each meeting.

We’ll take £4 from you at the door (students are, of course, free).

Upcoming events

21 November
NetZero / Clean Energy
Ian Wheeler, Head of Clean Energy at Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership (CLEP)

12 December
Psychology of Advertising / Social media

Mr Leslie Hallam, University of Lancaster
Leslie is the course director for the Psychology of Advertising MSc.
Working within the pragmatic field of advertising, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the fundamental understandings of interpersonal communication are the starting point and lodestar of designing, developing and re-engineering brands.
How can psychological knowledge be applied in the marketing and communications industries to improve effectiveness. In particular our ability to create and believe in brands, and treat them as if they’re real, with characteristics, associations, and even ‘personalities’ – a profound act of faith, art and imagination – that can influence the behaviour of millions of people (…some of the time!).

16 January, 2024
Cyber Security for Elections etc. effect upon democracy
Prof Joe Burton, University of Lancaster

Dr Joe Burton is Professor of International Security in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion (PPR) at Lancaster University. He joined the university in 2023 as part of the Security and Protection Science initiative.
His expertise is in the area of cyber conflict and emerging technologies. He teaches courses on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, strategic studies and international security and works on an interdisciplinary research agenda on cybersecurity, cyber-warfare, and cyber-diplomacy.

20 February, 2024
Bats – surviving in a fragmented world
Prof CFJ Meyer, Salford University

PHD in Ecology from University of Ulm (Germany). Gained a Post Doc there then was a Research Fellow at the University of Lisbon (Portugal) working on conservation projects for bats in Brazil, Africa and the Iberian Peninsular. He joined Salford in 2015 as is currently the Associate Professor in Global Ecology and Conservation. Researching the interface of biodiversity conservation, landscape ecology and applied community ecology mostly using bats as their model group.

19 March, 2024
The James Webb Space Telescope
Prof Gillian Wright
, Director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh
Gillian Susan Wright CBE FRSE is a Scottish astronomer who is currently the director of the   UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, UK. She has also been involved in the development and construction of the James Webb Space Telescope  as the European Principal Investigator for the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI).  In 2006 Wright was appointed MBE for services to science.[1] Wright was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2006 for services to science and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2023 New Year Honours for services  to astronomy through international missions. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

16 April, 2024
Prof Charlotte Roberts, Durham University

Charlotte is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Archeology. Her talk investigates and explores the ethics of Human Remains and their treatment, preservation and long-term care in Archaeology.

Previous events

17 October 2023
Field Mycology
Miss Liz Holden

What have Fungi ever done for us? Well, a bit of everything as it happens! These pervasive organisms are everywhere, and Liz’s talk discusses how beneficial and important they are, how they help in the production of almost everything we eat and how they are linked into the daily existence of all life on Earth.

05 September 2023
Galaxy Evolution
Dr Julie Wardlow, University of Lancaster

Senior Lecturer studying distant galaxies particularly those containing gas and dust forming stars,   thousands times faster than our own Milky Way. Previously she worked at instututions from Californa to Copenhagen and was awarded the  prestigious Ernest Rutherford Fellowship for her research in 2018. Leads th Luniverse  planetarium project bringing “space” into schools and communities

18 April
The James Webb Space Telescope
Prof Gillian Wright, Royal Observatory of Edinburgh
Launched on Christmas day 2021 after decades of development and construction, the James Webb Space Telescope is designed to address key questions about the formation and evolution of galaxies and the birth of stars and planets. Gillian will describe the mission and some of the challenges in building it, and discuss early scientific results from the first few months of observations.
Train cancellations meant that we had to cancel this meeting. We’ll have her talk at a later date.

21 March
Autonomous robots for the nuclear industry
Etienne Hocquard, head of robotics, Createc

Robotics, sensing and navigation technology is being applied to the nuclear industry and beyond. Virtual and augmented reality let the robot identify its surroundings and collect information about it and the ability to act autonomously lets it work out how to do things without having to be taught all the details. These amazing new technologies can keep workers out of harm’s way in the nuclear industry and other dangerous situations. Etienne will discuss new developments and practical projects from local demonstrators to solving problems at Fukushima or Three Mile Island.

21 February
Structural fire engineering – who cares, why bother?
Dr Dave Rush, University of Edinburgh
Almost every structure built worldwide is exposed to a fire hazard. The aim of structural fire engineering is ensure that that hazard does not lead to unacceptable failure. This talk will go through what a fire is and what fire engineers are concerned about, a bit of history on how structural fire engineering has developed and how it is now applied, and what the next set of challenges will be.

17 January
Environment and human health: revenge of the animals.
Prof Roger Pickup, University of Lancaster

Diseases from animals (zoonotic diseases) are on the increase. We are responsible in many ways and this talk will look at the causes and give a case study that links animal disease to chronic human disease. Covid jumped to humans from bats so this talk should give us a few pointers to where the next global pandemic will come from.

13 December
Resist the beginnings – how the early immune response determines the severity of a virus infection
Dr Vanessa Herder, University of Glasgow
Virus infections in the mammalian host cause a broad spectrum of clinical disease severities. While some hosts show mild outcomes, others progress to a life-threatening stage. Our research comparatively investigates the factors of the early immune response contributing to these clinical differences.

Vanessa and audience

15 November
Andrew Douglas, Material Engineering Group Manager in local firm James Walker, will talk about the seals they produce, how they design them, why there are so many different ones and the huge range of conditions they have to work in. This will be a hands-on meeting with plenty of samples for you to examine and play with.

18 October
CANCELLED. We hope to have this talk in the spring.

20 September
The deep biosphere: What lies beneath and why we should care
Dr Sophie Nixon, University of Manchester
In this talk I present recent research findings that highlight the diversity of life in the deep subsurface, and it’s contribution to biogeochemical cycles. Examples will include evidence for an active carbon- and sulfur-cycling microbial community deep in the Greenland Fennoscandian shield, a novel genus of bacteria recovered from a 2.5 km shale gas well, and a glimpse of the microbial life kilometres deep beneath our feet in the North of England. With these examples, I will demonstrate the power of cutting-edge genomic tools for uncovering the ‘rules of life’ in the subsurface, and highlight the potential to put subsurface microorganisms to work for the good of the environment and society.

26 April
Delving into the deep
Dr Will Reid, University of Newcastle
The oceans cover 362 million sq km of the Earth’s surface. Beyond the continental shelf we encounter the deep sea, which is approximately 90% of the ocean volume. This means most of Earth is deep sea but crucially it means that much of the habitable volume is in the dark. The deep sea was originally thought to be homogeneous with no life beyond where light could penetrate. We now know that this is not the case. The deep sea is a heterogeneous environment with life being found in all areas. The seafloor is covered with various habitats including underwater mountain ranges, canyons, seamounts, cold-water coral reefs, hydrothermal vents, mud volcanoes, hydrocarbon seeps, large geological faults and trenches. The animals that live here have developed adaptations to live in these various environments. Will will explore the history of the deep ocean exploration, discuss some of these habitats, animal adaptations to these habitats and some of the treats to deep-sea life.
Will’s talk had to be cancelled as he had caught Covid. We hope to have it at a later date.

15 March
Meteorites and the Early Solar System
Prof Jamie Gilmour, University of Manchester
We can study the formation of stars and planets by looking across space to star-forming regions in the galaxy today, or by looking back in time to the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. By comparing the two sets of observations we can think about how “typical” our solar system is. In this presentation there will be a chance to look at meteorite samples, find out some of the things they tell us about the environment in which the Earth formed around 4.56 billion years ago, and discuss current ideas about the formation of planetary systems.

15 February
Lichen flora of Cumbria
Allan Pentecost, British Lichen Society

Lichens come in many colours, sizes and forms and are sometimes plant-like, may superficially look like and grow with mosses, but they are not related to mosses or any plant. Allan has been looking at lichens for 64 years and will be bringing some to look at.

18 January
Flies! What are they good for? Absolutely everything!
Dr Erica McAlister, Senior Curator of Diptera, Natural History Museum

Flies – harbingers of doom or planetary saviours? Most people care not about the wild beasts that fly round their ceiling lights but these insects are vital to much of the planet’s ecosystems, as well as our own health and wellbeing. In this talk Erica will introduce you to the wonderful world of flies and talk about how their morphology has helped them become ecological masters as well as inspiring us to develop some amazing bits of technology.

7 December
Senescent cells drive ageing: Kill your foes to live long
Prof Thomas von Zglinicki, University of Newcastle

We are all living longer: Why do we need to intervene into the ageing process? What is a senescent cell and how does it drive ageing? How can we neutralize senescent cells in the body? If we manage that, can we expect to live longer? Healthier?

16 November
Energy policy – matching rhetoric to reality
Prof Roger Kemp, University of Lancaster

The Prime Ministerʼs 10-point plan for energy, which includes quadrupling offshore wind to 40GW and establishing 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production by 2030, does not explain how these new assets would replace the energy infrastructure built up over the last 100 years or how they would cope with the wildly fluctuating supply and demand for energy.
On the 28th February 2018, during the “The Beast from the East”, Britain used more than 4000GWh of energy. Six months earlier, we used less than a quarter of that. So do we invest in enough generating capacity for the February peak, knowing it will be unused for 90% of the year or do we find some way to store the energy? And what happens if the demand peak coincides with an anticyclonic period without wind?
This meeting will consider the challenges of a resilient low-carbon energy system capable of providing affordable energy when needed, despite the increasingly unstable climate. At a practical level, is hydrogen really “the answer”, as its proponents claim, or will we be equipping our houses with heat pumps?

19 October
Negative emissions technologies – potentials and problems
Dr Nils Markusson, University of Lancaster
I will give an introduction to the idea of negative emissions technologies (NETs), the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This will include an introduction to the variety of ways in which it could be realised in practice, and the hoped for roles of NETs in UK and global climate policy.
I will also discuss some of the problems and critiques of NETs. This will include issues around permanence of storage, resource use, justice issues and the risk of deterring other climate mitigation.

21 September 2021
Is seeing believing? Visual illusions and the brain
Prof Jenny Read, University of Newcastle
Humans are very visual animals. In fact we’re so good at seeing that it’s tempting to believe we just ‘see what’s out there’. But what we actually start with is a complex pattern of light energy (photons), detected by a sheet of photoreceptors in each eye. From this, our brains need to work out what we are looking at, how far away it is, how it’s moving, what it’s made of and more. Visual illusions offer us a rare glimpse of the processes underlying our amazing sense of sight.

18 February 2020
Batteries: how they work, what they can do for us, and why they may fail.

Prof Harry Hoster, University of Lancaster

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry rewarded three key pioneers for their contributions to Lithium Ion Battery technology. Harry will introduce you to the basic principles behind Lithium Ion Batteries and which coincidences helped them conquer the market. He will highlight why it is not trivial to achieve any breakthroughs that would deliver 500+ miles driving range, eternal battery life, perfect safety, or all of the above. He will also share why he thinks that battery knowledge is relevant for the London Insurance Market.

21 January
Galileo – Europe’s GPS system
Paul Tharagonnet

It’s hard to imagine a world today without satnavs and all the benefits brought to us by those man-made stars which have revolutionised navigation in the 21st century. We now have 4 global satellite navigation systems available for us to use: GPS from the US, Galileo from Europe, BeiDou from China and Glonass from Russia. Are the systems the same and what future developments can we expect from them?
Paul worked for 12 years on Galileo so we’ll have an insider’s view of the whole project.

2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table
10 December
Setting the Table: finding the order of the elements
Dr Fabio Parmeggiani, University of Manchester

A high-speed journey through the key steps that led to the masterpiece of the periodic table of the elements: from the four classical elements of the ancient Greeks (air, earth, fire, water) through the relentless work of the alchemists and of great scientists such as Boyle, Priestley, Cavendish and Lavoisier, all the way down to the genius of Mendeleev and his solitaire card game, destined to change forever the way we understand the universe around us.

This talk is being sponsored by the Royal Society for Chemistry as part of their IYPT Public Lecture Series.

19 November
Reproduction: why so many ways of doing it?
Dr Andrew Mongue, University of Edinburgh

Sex – the mixing of heritable material of two individuals – is nearly universal among multicellular organisms. Yet the variety of ways organisms achieve this is staggering. Organisms can, for example, differ in the way in which genetic material is inherited or how the genes of two parents are combined to form an offspring. Why there is such large variability in a process that is so fundamental remains one of the unsolved mysteries of life. Andrew will discuss some of the latest research into alternative reproductive strategies in animals and why and how these might have evolved.

15 October
Exploring our Solar System with Spacecraft
Chris Arridge, University of Lancaster

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 initiated a space race that led to our exploration of the solar system. Chris will describe some of the technologies used to further our understanding of the solar system and show how these have a lineage going back to the birth of the space age.

17 September 2019
Bacteriophages: Friends or Foes
Dr Darren Smith, University of Northumbria

There is a revived focus on viruses that infect bacteria. These viral entities, bacteriophages or phages, form a large part of the viral dark matter that encapsulates all our environments. They play underlying but important roles in all microbial communities by promoting evolutionary selection, yet they can also be intracellular parasites that infect, replicate and burst their bacterial hosts. Darren will explore the history of phage research, their use as a therapy, their use as simple models for genetic switches and genome engineering, how they are intrinsically linked to establishing or residing in bacterial communities and finally how they interact with our cells.

9 April
The Dark Side of the Universe
Dr Peter Edwards, University of Durham

Most of our universe is missing! When we look into the night sky we realise there is much more out there than meets the eye. Our universe is filled with mysterious dark matter, whose gravity provides the cosmic glue that holds it together, and dark energy, which is slowly tearing the universe apart. It seems that darkness rules.
But what is this dark stuff? How do we know it’s there? And what does it do?

12 March
Do you want your car to be driven by a computer?
Prof Roger Kemp, University of Lancaster

In the last 5 years, there has been increasing enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles (AVs). The claimed benefits include reduced energy consumption, efficient use of infrastructure, fewer accidents and mobility for all. However, evidence shows that managing safety is more difficult than many had hoped. There are also questions over AVs energy use and their effects on congestion. And many people, already worried that US  “tech” companies like Google already know too much about our lives, question whether we want them also to have detailed inventories of everywhere we go.

19 February
Stem cells and cancer: the good, bad and the ugly
Prof Steve Pollard, University of Edinburgh

There is a lot of promise that stem cells will be useful for new types of regenerative medicine. These special cells are long-lived and have the capacity to regenerate or repair our damaged, diseased or ageing bodies. However, there is another darker side to stem cells. We now know that many cancer cells highjack the molecular machinery used by stem cells. Focussing on brain stem cells and brain cancers as an example, I will discuss what stem cells are, why they are useful, and how they misbehave to cause cancer.

15 January
Revolutions in Light Microscopy
Dr Chas Nelson, University of Glasgow

Microscopy and imaging provide some of the most visually exciting and scientifically informative data available to the biosciences. Many revolutions have happened in light microscopy – from the development of fluorescent imaging to current advances in using artificial intelligence to produce super-resolved images. But there are still many challenges that must be solved by the combination of clever biology, clever physics and clever computing. Chas Nelson will introduce some of the most important historical changes in the microscope and how they have contributed to scientific knowledge before considering where microscopy might be going in the near future.
Chas Nelson is a researcher at the University of Glasgow where his research interests focus on the combination of advanced imaging and computing to answer challenging biological questions in new and better ways. He has a particular interest in studying how tissues and organs develop in zebrafish.

11 December
The gut microbiome and medicine
Prof Christine Edwards, University of Glasgow

The discovery that the bacteria in our gut (the gut microbiome) may have a huge influence on the function our bodies, and even our brains, has led to exploration of their role in many diseases from obesity to autism. The complex data produced from human studies makes interpretation of the evidence difficult. There are many strategies being discussed to alter unbalanced gut bacterial ecosystems including faecal transplants. This talk will explore what we know about our gut bacteria, what they can do, how we get them, how we could change them and how much we really understand about their role in disease.

20 November

Listening to Einstein’s Universe:  The Dawn of Gravitational-Wave Astronomy

Prof Martin Hendry, University of Glasgow

Gravitational waves are the ripples in spacetime predicted more than a century ago by Albert Einstein and produced by the most violent events in the cosmos: exploding stars, colliding black holes, even the Big Bang itself.  Join University of Glasgow astronomer Professor Martin Hendry as he tells the inside story of how gravitational waves were detected for the very first time, by the most sensitive scientific instruments ever built.  Learn about the amazing technology behind these discoveries and very bright future that lies ahead for this exciting new field.

16 October

Genomic dark matter

Prof Sam Griffiths-Jones, University of Manchester

Our genome has the complete set of genetic instructions to make a human.  That set of instructions is around 3 billion characters (nucleotide bases) long.  Within those 3 billion characters are short stretches, genes, that are used to make proteins, around 20000 of them.  The textbook view is that these proteins are the products that carry out essentially all of the important functions in all cells of the body. So, how can it be that only 1.2% of the bases in the human genome code for those proteins?  What does the rest do?  We have recently realised that molecules of RNA, made from so-called RNA genes, are much more widespread and important than previously considered.  I will introduce some of these roles, and talk about how we use computers and data analysis to try to understand this genomic dark matter.

18 September

Rust and  passivity – the consequence (and the enabler) of our metals-based civilization

Prof Stuart Lyon, University of Manchester

Our “metallic” civilization is built on a thermodynamic challenge and a kinetic truth. The minute molten metal pours out of the furnace it tries its hardest to get back to its geologically stable state – the ore from which it came. Everyone knows that rust is the brown unsightly stuff that forms on steel and other iron-based alloys during service. Well, the aesthetics of rust can be argued over but without it corrosion damage would accumulate on steels even faster than it does. Indeed all metals (save only gold) form similar oxide or hydroxide layers that slow corrosion down with greater or lesser efficiency. This is why metals don’t crumble to dust before they can be used.  The phenomenon, known as passivity after Michael Faraday observed it in the 1840s, is crucial to our efficient use of materials (and incidentally to the operation of all electronic devices).
This talk will explore the processes of corrosion and oxidation – one that touches us all, costs a fortune (around 3% of GDP per year) and which everyone complains about – why does my car rust so much?  The answer being, of course, not as much as it used to!

17 April

Formulating a future with biomanufacturing

Dr Louise Horsfall, University of Edinburgh

The UK is currently attempting to move towards a circular, more sustainable economy where we use the resources we have more wisely. This will help ensure that we do not exhaust supplies of important resources by prioritising the desires of the present over the needs of the future. To do this we need to view waste as an untapped feedstock, and in many circumstances biology has already evolved the processes for us to use it as such. The challenge now comes in harnessing the potential biology has to offer, through biotechnology and synthetic biology research, to enable bacteria and fungi to be used in a greater variety of industrial applications.

20 March

Fusion Energy – Star Power Brought Down to Earth

Prof Howard Wilson, Director of York Plasma Institute

Fusion is the process that powers the Sun. If we can reproduce the process here on Earth, it will provide effectively limitless energy in a safe way with no greenhouse gas emissions. The deuterium-tritium fuel mix must be heated to temperatures in excess of ten times that at the centre of the Sun. At such temperatures the fuel is in a so-called plasma state. This magnetically confined plasma is turbulent and exhibits violent eruptions reminiscent of solar flares – understanding this plasma physics is important for sustaining and controlling the plasma to maximise the fusion power output. The walls of the reactor have to withstand extreme conditions – the exhausted heat and particles from the plasma erodes material surfaces while the energetic neutrons produced by the fusion reactions degrade structural integrity. Maintenance in this extreme and challenging environment is key for reactor availability, requiring a state of the art remote handling capability.

In this talk we will explore how advances in plasma physics, materials science and technology must come together to realise fusion, and how ITER – presently under construction as a £15Bn international fusion research project in the South of France – is designed to address the final science questions and many of the technology questions to enable the design and construction of the first demonstration fusion power plants in the middle of this century.

20 February

Smart Cities

Richard Bellingham, Director of the Institute for Future Cities, University of Strathclyde

Cities have become the dominant way we live in the world today – and they will continue to grow. Delivering successful cities of the future that we all want to live in means tackling serious challenges. This presentation will examine major global urban issues – and potential viable solutions.

This talk was sponsored by the Institution of Civil Engineers as part of their ICE200 bicentenary celebrations.

16 January

Mass extinctions: Looking down not up!

Prof David Harper, University of Durham

Many authors, since the early 1980s, have associated the apparent cyclicity of mass extinction events on our planet (one every 27 million years) with repetitive astronomical processes, such as the tilting of the galactic plane. Our recent work has shown that firstly there is no cyclicity and secondly it is unnecessary to look to the skies for the causes of mass extinctions. The causes are closer to home.

12 December

Prospects for gene therapy and genetic medicine

Dr Mark Bailey, University of Glasgow

Many people in the UK population will end up with a medical condition caused wholly or partly by genes – the culprits are DNA sequence variants (both tiny and large) that alter the meaning of the information written in our genome. We may be able to offer complete or partial fixes by using ‘genes’ as ‘drugs’ – gene therapy. Many other conditions are not strongly genetic, but could be fixed by manipulating gene function. How do these manipulations work? What can and can’t they achieve? Why are they better than drugs? What are the dangers of using such approaches? Will the ability to manipulate the genome place us on a slippery slope to… – well, where, exactly?

21 November

Ageing brains and ageing minds

Dr Siobhan MacAndrew, University of Abertay Dundee

We hear people say ‘my brain might be 70 years old but who I really am isn’t!’ What is the relationship between who you are and your mind? Need we think of ageing as impairment just because mental processes are subject to age-related change? This discussion is about the amazing ageing brain and the even more amazing person inside it.

 17 October

Quantum computing – designing quantum technologies with help from the coldest place in Britain

Prof Andrew Daley, University of Strathclyde

Though we often don’t realise it, technologies that rely on the quantum physics of atoms, molecules, semiconductors, and light already play an important role in technologies we use every day. The level of control over individual atoms now available in the laboratory has the potential to transform the future of devices for measurement and sensing, secured communications, and also next generations of computers. I will give an overview of what is now available in the laboratory, and where we expect the state-of-the art in “quantum technologies” to go over the next decade.

 19 September

Earthquake prediction?

Prof Ian Main FRSE, University of Edinburgh

Several million earthquakes occur worldwide every year, causing 60% of disaster-related mortalities. Can large earthquakes be forecast with short-term probabilities that are high enough and reliable enough to aid in civil protection? The idea of predicting the ‘time, place and magnitude of an earthquake, in advance, and within narrow limits’ (where every word counts) has long been one of the holy grails of science. So why is so difficult, if not impossible, and what should we do instead?

 11 April

The Multiverse

Dr Michael Hawkins, The Royal Observatory Edinburgh

The volume of the Universe which we can directly observe has a radius of around 13.5 billion light years, limited by how far light has travelled since the Universe as we know it came into existence in the Big Bang.  It seems highly likely that we can see only a small part of what exists, but how much of the total?  The geometry of the Universe suggests that it extends vast distances beyond what we can observe, but would it be a broadly recognisable place or alien in ways we cannot possibly imagine? Cosmologists even hypothesise totally disconnected bubbles of reality in a ‘multiverse’ in which arbitrary selections of physical laws apply.  I will discuss some modern ideas on this subject, and touch on the question of whether such speculations are really science at all.

21 March

What makes British weather worth talking about?

Professor Doug Parker

UK weather is notoriously dynamic and unpredictable, so it makes sense that weather is the number one topic of conversation amongst the British. But what makes the UK weather so difficult to predict? What makes it so changeable?
Doug Parker is a Met Office Professor of Meteorology, based at University of Leeds. His research explores weather systems around the world, from dust storms in the African Sahara, to the dynamics of synoptic fronts in the UK, and how they are driven by high-altitude winds. Join him for a discussion of our most beloved conversation-starter and explore the science behind our ever-changing weather.

21 February

The making, keeping and losing of memory

Prof Richard Morris, CBE, FRS

Memory plays a critical role in our lives, enabling us to store information about specific events and to accumulate knowledge.  It enables us to reflect on the past and to wonder about the future.  In short it frees us living life just in the passing moments of day-to-day existence.  I also think of memory as the glue that holds families and friendships together. It is, of course, mediated by the brain and, in this talk, I shall outline our current understanding of how memory works neurophysiologically – how we encode new information, keep some of it, and then touch on the problems of memory loss in old-age and age-related neurological disorders.  At the end, I hope we can also have a fruitful discussion of people’s personal experience and anecdotes about memory. (Prof Morris and two colleagues won the 2016 Brain Prize for their work on the mechanism of memory.)

17 January 2017

Are animals smart?

Dr Lauren Guillette, University of St Andrews

Animals perform behaviours that routinely surprise and impress us. Most of these are behaviours that we tend to think are special to humans, such as using tools. But animals can also do things we might find quite difficult, like remembering thousands of locations where food is hidden. Dr Lauren Guillette, BBSRC Anniversary Future Leader Fellow at the University of St Andrews, talks about her research on learning and cognition in animals and discusses questions like: What does it mean to be smart? How do we find out if an animal is smart? And are some animals smarter than others?

13 December

Data to Delivery: How evidence informs the management of flood risk

Mike Harper and Adam Stephenson, Environment Agency

A talk about how environmental data is used by the Environment Agency across the flood risk management business; from recording of real life data to the development of hydraulic models which informs the design and construction of flood alleviation schemes.  This data is the backbone that supports and justifies the work of the Environment Agency’s flood risk management function.

15 November

International Space Station

Prof Mike Cruise, University of Birmingham

Travelling above our heads every day is a large science laboratory- the International Space Station, or ISS – which orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. What goes on there? How is it operated? Why is it important? These questions immediately spring to mind and Prof Mike Cruise of the University of Birmingham will provide some answers. Mike is Chairman of the European Space Agency’s Human Exploration Science Advisory Committee and a long term participant in Space Science in Europe and internationally.

18 October

Planets around other stars

Prof Ken Rice, University of Edinburgh

It’s been over 20 years since we discovered the first planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. Today, we know of more than 3,000 extrasolar planets, more commonly known as exoplanets, and we’re still discovering more! We’ve found that these exoplanets are incredibly diverse: from big gas giants orbiting very close to their parent stars to small rocky planets with orbits of only a few hours. I will discuss how to detect planets around other stars, what we know about their characteristics, and whether or not we might expect to find a potentially habitable planet in the near future.

20 September

Why the compass needle points North

Prof Kathy Whaler, University of Edinburgh

Magnetic compasses may have been used by the Chinese as early as the first century AD, and natural magnets were known to the Greeks in classical times. We know that the earth’s magnetic field originates in the liquid iron region of the deep Earth, and have plausible mechanisms for how it is generated which match most of the observations, including that over most of Earth history is has pointed approximately towards either the North or South pole. Kathy Whaler, Professor of Geophysics at the University of Edinburgh, will describe what we know (and how we know it) about deep Earth structure, the processes taking place in the liquid iron core which generate the magnetic field, and the controversies that remain.

19 April

Where next for Particle Physics?

Dr Gavin Hesketh

Since discovering the Higgs, attention has shifted to some really open questions in fundamental physics: learning more about the Higgs but also to the nature of Dark Matter, learning more about neutrinos and many other things. In my talk I’ll give a flavour of some of these questions, and where answers may come from.

Gavin’s research focuses on fundamental physics at the electroweak scale. The LHC is the unprecedented opportunity to explore this energy regime and beyond. So far this has lead to the discovery of the/a Higgs boson, which may be responsible for breaking electroweak symmetry and generating particle masses. In the coming years, we should be able to determine if this Higgs boson couples to fermions, generating mass for the matter particles.

9 February

Forensic Taphonomy

Peter Cross

 Unfortunately, Peter had an unexpected family bereavement and had to cancel at short notice. We’ll try to have his talk another time.

8 March

Forensic Collision Investigation

Simon Farrell

 Despite giant leaps forward in vehicle safety in recent years payments from the insurance industry to those involved in collisions are greater than ever. This talk by Simon Farrell will highlight his work for GBB (UK) Ltd of Burnley, a market leading firm of forensic collision investigators and engineers who offer expert evidence in all motoring matters particularly collision reconstruction and investigation. The talk will discuss how engineering knowledge is used to assist in the investigation of large rings of fraudulent insurance claims to individual injury claims, and a wide range of different collisions, from minor scrapes to those involving major injuries or fatalities.

12 January

The ticking and tocking of your body clock

Prof Hugh Piggins

 The rotation of the earth on its axis creates daily variation in several parameters including temperature, humidity, and daylight.  To adapt and to anticipate such recurring conditions, intrinsic circadian or near 24h biological clocks have evolved in virtually all life forms.  In mammals including humans, the master circadian clock is in the brain, although most cells and tissues throughout the body contain clocks.  Professor Hugh Piggins, University of Manchester, will discuss how the circadian clock is organised, how it is reset by the environment, and how it communicates with the rest of the brain and body.

December 8th 

Smashing physics

Jon Butterworth

 The floods prevented Jon from getting here so this cafe had to be cancelled. We rearranged his talk.

November 17th

The science of sight

Matt Mellor

 The human visual system is by far the most powerful and complex of the senses. It enables us to perceive the world around us a three-dimensional structure, to navigate, to recognise many thousands of objects, animals and people without the slightest concious effort. After decades of work to understand and reproduce the workings of the visual system, we understand only isolated pieces. Matt will take a random walk through some of the more interesting and surprising properties of the human visual system and some of the latest results of efforts to reproduce it.   

 Matt Mellor gained a PhD in computer vision applied to medical imaging from the Robotics Research Group of Oxford University in 2004. In 2010 he founded Createc, a commercial research and development group specialising in imaging and sensing, based in Cockermouth. Today Createc develops vision systems in multiple industries for customers all round the world.

October 20th 

The science and future of plant genetic modification

Geraint Parry

Genetic Modification of plants has been a controversial topic for over a decade and yet there is continuing confusion about what they are, if they are a danger and for what they can be used.

 Geraint will introduce the science behind the creation of GM crops, explain what they are and what the benefits or potential drawbacks they have. He will consider why he thinks they are part of the solution for problems of world food insecurity and why it’s not all about big multinationals and that crops created for the common good can make a difference!

Dr Geraint Parry has been a plant science researcher for the past 15 years, working in labs in the UK and USA. Most recently he was a lecturer at the University of Liverpool before moving on to his current position where he acts as National Coordinator for the GARNet community, an organisation which supports fundamental plant science research.

September 15th 

Why you are a superorganism

Jon Turney 

 After we sequenced the human genome, attention turned to the microbes within us. Recent results show they are far more diverse than anyone knew. Their trillion-fold contributions to our lives include aiding digestion, making vitamins, and toning up the immune system. Truly we are superorganisms. As more evidence emerges that our microbes affect many aspects of health, and may even influence the brain, what does this mean for medicine, diet advice, child-rearing, and all the rest of our lives?

April 14th

Rebecca Whittle

Five loaves and two fishes: can local food feed the world?

“With the world’s population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050 there is talk of a global food security crisis. Across the globe, a range of initiatives are taking place in an attempt to avert this crisis, from scientists working to develop crops that will be more resistant to the impacts of climate change, through to the development of new, hi-tech forms of urban farming which could see food being grown in disused office blocks. But what about smaller, more local and community oriented ‘grow your own’ initiatives – such as the rise of urban foraging, community and ‘guerrilla gardening’? Such initiatives are often overlooked because the volume of food that they produce is relatively small. However, I’ll argue that they remain a vital component of food security, since they have the potential to transform the ways in which we relate to the environment and each other…”

Beccy Whittle is a lecturer in the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University. As a keen ‘allotmenteer’ and community gardener (and, less importantly, a social scientist with nine years experience of working on environmental research projects!), she is passionate about researching and developing local and alternative food systems which combine environmental sustainability with social and community benefits.

March 17th 

Arthritis: Is prevention better than cure?

Ian Bruce

Ian Bruce is an NIHR Senior Investigator and Professor of Rheumatology at the Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Unit, Institute of Inflammation and Repair, University of Manchester and The Kellgren Centre for Rheumatology, Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Trust. He is currently Medical Director of the NIHR/ Wellcome Trust Manchester Clinical Research Facility and the Manchester Centre Academic Lead for the NIHR Translational Research Partnership in Joint and related inflammatory conditions. Prof Bruce is also Chair of the Systemic Lupus International Collaborating Clinics (SLICC) group. 

February 17th 

Ian Jackson

“Melanocytes: The Remarkable Cells That Create the Many Colours of 
Humans and Animals”

Melanocytes are remarkable cells that come from the developing nervous 
system and find their way to the skin, eyes and hair. There they produce 
the variety of colours that we see humans and in wild and domesticated 
animals. Many patterns seen in animals can be explained by melanocytes 
failing to reach their target sites (think of a black and white cat, or 
a Friesian cow). The type of pigment made by these cells can vary from 
red or yellow to black or brown, and genetic variation in this process 
is what results in red hair in humans; black cattle and sheep; black, 
red or yellow dogs and similar variants in many other domestic and wild 

Ian Jackson is a Professor at Edinburgh University where he is Head of 
Medical and Developmental Genetics at the MRC Human Genetics Unit (a 
world-leading centre for human genetic research) and also holds a joint 
appointment in the Roslin Institute (a leading centre for veterinary 
research). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and is 
currently the President of the European Society for Pigment Cell Research.

January 20th 2015

Dave McGarvie

Iceland’s volcanic eruptions – the surprise and the suspense

“At the time of writing (November 2014) the Bárðarbunga (bower-tha-boonga) volcano has been active for nearly 3 months. In some respects it’s behaving as we expect, but in other respects it’s providing us with some surprises. It’s erupted Iceland’s largest lava flow since the 1783-4 Laki eruption, and one surprise is that nobody expected it to last so long and in such a steady-state – with the lava effusing at a near-constant rate, and the ice-filled caldera (i.e. a large crater) also subsiding at a steady rate. It’s keeping us in suspense though, as we simply don’t know what will happen next. In the recent past Iceland’s largest explosive eruption since 1947 occurred in 2011 at Grimsvötn, and the size of the eruption surprised everyone. This is becoming the ‘forgotten eruption’ as virtually nobody remembers it despite it erupting twice as much ash as the infamous Eyjafjallajökull., which, prior to 2010 was known to Icelanders as ‘the quiet one’. Here’s a surprising fact. Even if we had the exact same eruption happening today under exactly the same conditions, there would only be a fraction of the flights cancelled compared to 2010. If you want to know why, and/or have any other questions on Icelandic volcanoes, please come along and I will do my best to provide you with answers.”

Dave McGarvie is Senior Lecture and Staff Tutor for the OU in Scotland. He has been doing research in Iceland on and off for 32 years, with a recent focus on volcano-ice interactions, on investigating Iceland’s largest explosive eruption since it was settled c.1100 years ago, and on exploring little-known volcanoes to better understand their past eruptive histories. He also has a project in Chile, exploring lava-ice interactions, and applying knowledge gained in Iceland to decipher ice thicknesses through time at a little known stratovolcano.

December 9th

The marine fauna of the Solway Firth and the proposed Marine Conservation Zone of Allonby Bay.

Jane Lancaster, Natural Power, Newcastle

Jane (who gave a talk about the Solway’s mussel beds for our Café Sci seven years ago) has for many years carried out shore surveys on this side of the Solway, and more recently has been involved with underwater surveys for E.On around the Robin Rigg wind-farm. How has the fauna in the Firth changed during this period? What are Marine Conservation Zones, and what’s special about Allonby Bay?

Jane Lancaster is Senior Marine Ecologist, working on environmental monitoring, for the renewable energy consultancy firm Natural Power.

September 23

Postcards from your brain: we wish we were there. On the (mis)uses of brain imaging.

Simon Cox, Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, Dept. of Psychology, Edinburgh

Popular media increasingly presents us with new discoveries from brain science, often accompanied by colourful images of the brain. Though bewitching, their reported significance and accuracy are routinely misleading. In spite of this, neuroimaging has been deemed submissible as  evidence in court and there is pressure from some quarters within governments, insurance companies and military agencies to adopt brain imaging for ‘diagnostic’ purposes. This same technology has also detected brain activity in a (very) dead salmon. So what can brain imaging actually tell us? It offers a unique opportunity to peer into the living human cranium, and I hope to convince you of its undeniable utility. However, understanding the limitations of the technology and its analysis can help to identify spurious claims, and clarify legal and ethical implications of the many (mis)uses of neuroimaging. 

Simon Cox coordinates a longitudinal ageing study (the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936) and is an Associate Member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. His research concerns the nature, potential determinants and cognitive impact of brain ageing.
Faced with the prospect of talking about brain imaging without any images, he plans to cheat slightly. Illustrations to accompany the talk will be distributed in postcard form.


Anatomy of Cyber Attacks.

Awais Rashid, University of Lancaster

“Have you ever wondered what role Zero Days, viruses, trojans, rootkits and other such technologies play in cyber attacks? How do hackers compromise systems, what information do they extract and should we even care? In this talk, I will discuss these issues as well as provide insights into how attackers extract what is most valuable in the modern digital world: data.”

Professor Awais Rashid is Director of Security, Lancaster Research Centre at Lancaster University. He studies cyber security challenges at integration points in large-scale systems and infrastructures in order to unravel their impact on cyber resilience of individuals, organisations and infrastructures. He also researches privacy, in particular, how to empower users of online services, and development of software technologies to protect vulnerable user groups (e.g., children and young people).


Faster, lighter, stronger, cheaper” – how manufacturing technology is driving the aerospace industry forward.

Andrew Schofield, BAE Systems

Exciting new materials in the aerospace industry: Andrew will discuss how manufacturing technology at BAE Systems has changed from the production of legacy aircraft, such as Hawk and Tornado, to current aircraft, such as Typhoon and F35 Lightning II – and the challenges of future aircraft programmes.  Throughout this transition, the application  of new materials has consistently underpinned the development of manufacturing processes.  Likewise, advanced processing techniques have necessitated improvements in materials.

Andrew Schofield is Head of Manufacturing & Materials Engineering in the Military Air & Information business within BAE Systems, and is responsible for the development, deployment and subsequent governance of all engineering processes, technology and capability used across a variety of military aircraft products. He has experience of the full lifecycle of the aircraft products ranging from conceptual studies for future aircraft projects through to providing support to aircraft in operational service. He is also Chair of the Advanced Manufacturing & Design National Technical Committee and interfaces with a number of Technology Centres in the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

Tuesday January 21st 2014

Cancer metastasis- the last great frontier for cancer therapies?

Laura Machesky

Cancer metastasis is the most deadly aspect of most cancers, yet we have no therapies against metastasis other than removal of the primary tumour.  We also lack understanding of the mechanisms by which a cancer cell in a tumour can move from one site in the body to another and thus seed a new tumour (metastasis).   I will discuss some of the ways that we and other groups are studying cancer spread and how basic understanding of how cells move will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of cancer metastasis.

Laura Machesky is a senior research group leader and Professor at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research and Glasgow University College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences.  She completed her Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, USA and then moved to the UK for her scientific career.  She studies cell migration and invasion and is interested in applying this toward the goal of developing new understanding and therapies for cancer metastasis.

Tuesday 25th February 2014

Please book from Tues 18th by phoning Mike Rose-Troup on 01900 826903

Fuel cells and hydrogen: the future?

Richard Dawson

Fuel cells and batteries have much in common and although fuel cells  have been long promised but never delivered they are now closer than ever before. Costs are coming down, durability is up, storage is becoming standardised and genuine products have been developed. The talk will include a little about hydrogen as an interesting energy storage intermediate or source, the principles of operation which apply to all electrochemical energy conversion devices, the wide and varied types of fuel cells, the applications from hand-held through to multi-MW stationary installations and end with something about the future.

Dr Richard Dawson is a Lecturer in Engineering at Lancaster University.

Tuesday 18th March 2014


David Petley

David Petley’s research interests lie primarily in the understanding of landslides and landslide mechanics, especially in high mountain areas within less developed countries. This includes research on  mechanisms of fracture generation and growth, the ways in which first-time failures develop and the use of remote sensing, especially with respect to landslide mapping and monitoring. He blogs at the landslide blog about landslide and rockfall events happening worldwide, including maps of the locations of fatal events.

Professor David Petley is Co-Director, Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience in the Department of Geography, Durham University.

Tuesday 15th April 2014

Life at the limits – the physiology of high altitude

Andrew Murray

Human performance in the rarefied atmosphere of the mountain environment is extremely variable. Some remarkable individuals have been able to ascend to the summit of Everest, even without the use of supplementary oxygen, whilst many others suffer from crippling altitude sickness at much more moderate elevations. This talk will introduce current research into acclimatisation to high altitude in lowland dwellers, and the evolutionary adaptation of high altitude populations residing in the high Himalaya or Andes. Links with exercise performance and reproduction will be considered along with the latest ideas on how the ability to launch an effective response to low oxygen at altitude might be associated with improved outcome in critically ill patients.

Dr Andrew Murray is a University Lecturer in Physiology at the University of Cambridge, and one of the co-principal investigators of the Caudwell Xtreme Everest Hypoxia Research Consortium. He has been a Research Leader on two expeditions to Everest: Caudwell Xtreme Everest in 2007 and Xtreme Everest 2 in 2013.

Tuesday 10th December  2013

Sheep, science and sustainability    

Dianna Bowles

There are many projects nationally and globally directed towards food security and how to ensure supplies within the context of changing climates and the urgent need to become economically and environmentally sustainable. Some 40% of land in England is grassland and much of that is in the uplands. Sheep production can offer a means of making the most of conditions that can no longer support other sectors of agriculture. But, currently all sorts of issues arise that obstruct the potential of sheep farming. The presentation will consider how science – and mindset – can help to benefit farmers, consumers and the environment.    

Dianna is now an Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of York, where she founded and directed the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products. A plant biochemist by training, she was interested in how plant natural products can benefit society, such as through their positive impacts on human health. She was a Bill Gates grantee for six years, working on a plant-derived medicine for treatment of malaria, as well as being involved in policy decisions, such as Chairing the External Advisory Group for the EC in Agriculture, Food and Biotechnology. She is also passionate about the worth of Herdwick sheep and has kept a flock for some 20 years, as well as founding The Sheep Trust and setting up the rare breeds’ gene bank during the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic. 

Tuesday November 19th 2013

Enhancing what? Enhancing who? Enhancing why? Social aspects of the human enhancement debate

Martyn Pickersgill

Martyn writes, “Ideas about ‘human enhancement’ have come to be increasingly evident and debated within the bioethical literature. They’ve also become seen as things that scientists and scientific institutions can and should have something to say about. Discussions tend to focus on specific drugs or technologies that will, or could, make people ‘better than well’. This has led to fresh debate about how the boundaries between ‘therapy’ and ‘enhancement’ can be drawn. In this short talk, I will summarise some of the techniques of enhancement that have been discussed by academics, and what has been thought to be necessary to enhance. In so doing, I will also bring up some of the ethical issues that have been raised, and discuss how they might resonate with everyday concerns. Finally, I’ll reflect on what I think some of the social factors are that (a) shape all this, and (b) are left out of the discussion.” 

Martyn Pickersgill is a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics, Centre for Population health Studies, Univ of Edinburgh. He is a sociologist of science, technology and medicine. Since his doctoral research on the historical sociology of psychiatry at the University of Nottingham, he has held grants and fellowships from the AHRC, ESRC, Newby Trust and Wellcome Trust on the social and ethical dimensions of neuroscience, neurology and psychology. Martyn’s work has appeared in major journals, and his co-edited book, ‘Sociological Reflections on the Neurosciences’, was short-listed for the 2012 British Sociological Association Medical Sociology Book Prize. He has been a visiting scholar at institutions such as Harvard University, New York University, and the US National Institutes of Health, and in 2011 Martyn was elected as an inaugural member of the Young Academy of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Tuesday Sept 17th

Atoms under the microscope: from materials science to tomorrow’s data 

Dr Donald MacLaren, University of Glasgow

Consumers are used to storing ever more photos, movies and music onto ever-expanding hard-drives and memory cards. Technologists, on the other 
hand, worry how this insatiable appetite for cheap data storage can be maintained. Certainly, the current trend to miniaturise devices is unsustainable, since atomic dimensions provide a fundamental limit on any technology. Entirely new solutions are, therefore, required. Donald MacLaren is a Research Fellow and materials physicist and spends much of his time using electron microscopy to study materials for next-generation data storage. One particularly exciting area of research is the development of ‘complex oxide’ structures that could become a more versatile platform than conventional silicon technologies – if their properties and processing can be tamed they could transcend today’s binary flash-memory.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Making the most of your genes

David Elliott

Why are human genes thousands of times longer than they really need to be, how did this come about and why it is important for making our bodies work?

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Sap rising: how trees spring to life

Ted Wilson

In this talk, we explore one of the wonders of Nature – the leafing out and regeneration of trees after winter dormancy and the heralding of spring. What seems so simple and intuitive is in fact the product of myriad processes, interactions and stimuli working in a highly ordered and coordinated manner. This has largely been accomplished through evolution, which has equipped trees with an ability to “fine tune” to their local environment. Our understanding of the physiology of trees is still emerging, but is critical at a time of dramatic climate and environmental change. 

Tuesday 15 January 2013

The male and the female brains: same or different?

Laura Nelson

Dr Laura Nelson is going to talk about what is a taboo and controversy to many people: men’s and women’s brains. As she dissects the landscape of science underlying the gender debate, she’ll be unpicking the myths that have strong influences on how you perceive yourself and others. Do you feel de-motivated in your work or creativity, lacking in confidence or just a little bit irritable, lonely or miserable some of the time? Imagine being able to train your brain so you never have a bad job, a bad relationship or even a bad day again in your life. Laura gives people the tools to understand and overcome the negative emotional patterns that curb their success and happiness; her unique specialty is the powerful influence of gender stereotypes and their link with deep-rooted psychological limitations. 

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Judith Brown and Cockermouth Cafe Scientifique


Tuesday 20 November 2012

Meditation in the lab: The mind from without and from within

Peter Malinowski

The scientific investigation of meditation and mindfulness practices is currently exploding. A growing number of studies show beneficial effects of regularly engaging in mindfulness practices, evident in various measures of wellbeing and psychological functioning. The talk will introduce some of the main research strands of current meditation research and discuss some of the latest findings. What do scientists discover when analysing meditators with their empirical, third person methods? And how does the process of meditation look from the perspective of the meditator?

Tuesday 16 October 2012 

Fracking : the price of shale gas extraction

Ernie Rutter

Professor Rutter works in the University of Manchester’s Rock Deformation Laboratory and is an expert on earthquakes, landslides and natural rock deformation. He made frequent media appearances during the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami to explain the tragic events. He has made major contributions to the field of structural geology and the physics of natural rock deformation over four decades. In April 2011 he  was awarded the Louis Néel Medal from the European Geophysical Union for his pioneering work in natural rock deformation. The award, which has been running since 1993, rewards the scientists who achieve outstanding results in ‘the fertilization of the earth sciences by the transfer and application of fundamental theory and/or experimental techniques of solid state physics.’

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Northern lights and space weather

Jim Wild

Jim Wild studies the space environment and the links between the Sun, the Earth and other planets.

Jim studied for a degree in Physics with Space Science and Technology before completing a doctorate in solar-terrestrial physics at the University of Leicester. He is now a Reader in Space Plasma Physics at Lancaster University’s Department of Physics.

His research investigates the physics behind the aurora borealis (sometimes known as the northern lights), the impact of space weather on human technology and the interaction between the Martian atmosphere and the interplanetary environment. As well as exploiting an international flotilla of satellites, Jim’s research has regularly taken him to the high arctic to carry out experiments.

 Tuesday 17th April 2012

The neuropsychology of love and fidelity

Sonia Tucci

Sonia will introduce the psychology of love by briefly explaining the process responsible for attraction and  romantic love, then focus on some findings that relate to neurological mechanisms behind monogamy and fidelity.

Tuesday March 20th 2012

The science of epigenetics

Adrian Bird

The discovery of the double helix, and the more recent mapping of the human genome were major scientific breakthroughs, yet they have left more questions than answers. Why, for example, does one set of genes (DNA) express itself as a caterpillar, yet exactly the same set of genes also express itself as a butterfly? Why can genetically identical cells perform functions as different as a brain cell and a liver cell in a single organism? 

Geneticists study the gene. However, for epigeneticists, there is no obvious ‘epigene’. Nevertheless, during the past year, more than 2,500 articles, numerous scientific meetings and a new journal were devoted to the subject of epigenetics. It encompasses some of the most exciting contemporary biology and is portrayed by the popular press as a revolutionary new science — an antidote to the idea that we are hard-wired by our genes. So what is epigenetics?

Tuesday 21 February 2012

The language of Babel

Padraic Monaghan

What do we know about the origins of language? Is language encoded in our genes, or is it just that humans are better than any other species at learning? What is the variety in the world’s languages today, and are there any commonalities across all languages? Padraic will describe how modern psychology and linguistics are beginning to provide answers to these fundamental questions about the development of human communication. 

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Experimenting with extreme cold

Rich Haley

The pursuit of extreme cold is a never-ending quest towards the “infinity” of the absolute zero of temperature at a very chilly -273.15 degrees Celsius. The element helium plays a pivotal role in this conquest. Initially discovered as a mystery spectral line in the sun (“Helios”), it was later isolated on Earth as a rare gas and first liquefied just over 100 years ago, at 4 degrees above absolute zero. When cooled further by forced evaporation rather than solidifying, a completely new state of matter appeared. The helium had undergone a phase trans