Archive for Surrey Sessions

What’s so funny about science?


Here are some of the songs and sources discussed in the session:

Please do post your own science jokes and song titles / artists as comments. Thank you!

Saturday 5th September, 17.00 to 19.00

Venue: LT M

Science’s reputation as a serious, even forbidding enterprise is belied by a wealth of humour exploring scientific culture, its values and assumptions. From well-known cartoons, scientific jokes and parodies, science sustains a rich culture of humour. Apart from its sheer funniness, find out how scientific humour tells us much about how we relate to science and how scientists see themselves.

Joe Cain – “You must be joking!” Pranks, Jokes and other Silliness in Science

Every scientific discipline has inside jokes. Why? Dr Joe Cain, historian of biology at UCL, will bridge the gap between science and comedy to tell the amusing story behind one of biology’s most favourite practical jokes, the ‘snouters’. He will then consider some of the social functions these pranks have in our communities. This talk is suitable for adults.

Melanie Keene – The Singing Scientists

Science is as much about songs and choirs as solvents and calculus. For over two hundred years, singing scientists have criticized, satirized, and celebrated their work in lyrics, often written to well-known tunes. ‘Clementine’ became ‘Ions Mine’ at the Cavendish Laboratory. American music-hall goers laughed at evolutionary theory as ‘Darwin’s Little Joke’, in a song written by ‘O’Rangoutang’. And, famously, Tom
Lehrer rewrote Gilbert and Sullivan as a list of ‘The Elements’. In this talk I will analyse the humour of these songs, playing video and audio clips, and showing lyrics, sheet music and cover images. Audiences will discover why Irving Berlin (better known for ‘White Christmas’) advised ladies to ‘Keep Away from the Fellow Who Owns an Automobile’, why in 1843 ‘Mrs Crucible’ regretted marrying ‘A Scientific Man’, will learn about the patriotism of the early Geological Society, how Scottish Students sent up ‘The Lady Doctor’, and find out just what happened to the Professor and the young girl in ‘Botany’, a love story of 1909.

About the speakers

Dr Melanie Keene is a Junior Research Fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge. She is a member of the British Society for the History of Science Strolling Players, and runs the Cambridge University Science and Literature Reading Group. Publications include ‘”Every Boy & Girl a Scientist”: Instruments for Children in Interwar Britain’, Isis 98 (2007).

Dr Joe Cain is Senior Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London.


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Food in our lives: food, medicine, science and culture

Thursday 10th September, 13.30-15.15

Venue: LT G

This session explores some of the meanings attached to food. We focus on the links between food and medicine, food and industrial science and food in a geographical setting in the context of culture and commerce.

The idea that we are what we eat goes back to the beginnings of Western and Asian medicine and the session looks at dietetics in the past showing how food has been considered both as preserving the body and as being dangerous and pathological.

Questions about whether our food is natural or artificial are explored, with a discussion about the role of industrial chemical processes in food manufacture in the twentieth century.

Finally, we consider how a ‘food’ like curry migrates and is transformed across cultural boundaries and in what ways it is both a cultural and a manufactured product.

Speakers TBC

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William Wordsworth at the British Association? Literature and Culture in the Early Years of the BSA

Wednesday 9th September, 16.00-17.00

Venue: Austin Pearce 3

In association with the Research Centre for Literature, Arts and Science at the University of Glamorgan. With thanks to the University of Glamorgan Strategic Insight Partnership Scheme for helping to fund this event.

Presenter: Dr Martin Willis, University of Glamorgan

UPDATE: this talk was the lead story on Leading Edge Festival edition, broadcast 10 September.

In the early years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831-1851) it was not just scientists who enjoyed the annual meetings and various reports and discussions, but other men of culture too. This event explores some of the relationships between the early BA and key literary, artistic and cultural figures. Additionally, the event will show how the scientists of the BA used literary and artistic works in their scientific reports and in the Presidential Addresses.

The core message of the event, therefore, is to reveal that science was always part of wider social activity and creativity, and that the BSA’s interactions with society are not new but an evolved version of the original BAAS’s conception.

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The Tables Turned

A performance by the BSHS Outreach and Education Committee.

Strange Manifestations

‘The Tables Turned’ takes its audience to a dinner-party séance of the 1860s.

A film will show characters – including a physicist, poet, physician and medium – attempting to summon the spirits.

Through conversations on, and responses to, the evening’s events – table-rapping, ghostly messages and emanations – questions over the authority of men of science in the realm of the supernatural, and over scientific methods themselves, will be raised.

What is the limit of scientific knowledge? How do we test phenomena? Can we believe what we see? The audience and characters will analyse the problems of fact-making and observation, of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, in the cultural context of Victorian Britain.


  • Wednesday 9th, 8pm (main programme)
  • Wednesday 9th (KS3/4) and Thursday 10th (KS5), 10.30am, 12.30pm, 2pm (Young People’s Programme)

Funded by the Wellcome Trust.


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Too Hot to Handle

Burning Globe

Thursday 10th September, 16.30-18.30

Venue: LT G

How is scientific uncertainty represented in the media? How might scientific uncertainty and environmental risks be better communicated? How do different publics deal with risk, controversy and uncertainty in relation to different issues? And how have public perceptions of risk changed over time?

Panel members present brief, engaging talks based on their latest research, which addresses these issues. Presenters will focus on particular topical examples, including climate change, sustainability and nanotechnology.

Lorraine Whitmarsh – The Hot Topic: Perceiving and communicating climate change

This talk will present the latest findings from research on public perceptions of climate change, and will describe how scepticism, uncertainty and risk perceptions differ amongst different groups (e.g., age groups, political preferences) and how perceptions have changed over time. The presentation will also discuss what research in this field can tell us about how better to communicate climate change and engage the public with this complex and uncertain issue. UPDATE: this session was picked up by the BBC, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and the Independent.

Kate Burningham – Fuelling protest: local opposition to biomass developments

The UK Renewable Energy Strategy (2009) concludes that we need to radically increase our use of renewable energy in order to ensure that 15% of our energy comes from renewable sources by 2020. While research suggests that the majority of the population support renewable energy the development of new renewable energy developments such as biomass plants often invokes local concern and protest. This talk draws on findings from research on the proposed development of two biomass plants. It explores some of the key concerns local people have about such developments and highlights ways in which lack of public engagement by planners and developers may fuel dissent.

Adam Corner – Nanotechnology: Big Uncertainties about Small Things

Nanotechnology is the science of the very small – technology at the atomic scale. Spectacular advances are predicted in healthcare, energy provision and computing – all because of this miniature marvel. But nanoparticles are not just smaller – things are very different at the nano-scale. Being able to control the building blocks of life raises many important questions, and nanotechnology means a journey into the unknown…

I will explain why some scientists think nanotechnology will revolutionise society, while others fear the uncertainties of a world filled with nanotechnology. From self-cleaning windows and spray-on solar cells to Smart-food and nanobots, come and find out why nanotechnology is causing some big uncertainties about some very small things.

About the speakers

Lorraine Whitmarsh is Lecturer in Environmental Psychology at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research & School of Psychology, Cardiff University

Kate Burningham is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey

Adam Corner is a Researcher in the Understanding Risk Research Group, School of Psychology, Cardiff University. He writes for the Guardian on Environment issues, including a recent article on uncertainty in climate modelling.

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Does Darwin Have a Future?

Darwin-Emile Littré by André Gill

Sunday 6th September, 16.00 to 18.00

Venue: Austin Pearce 3

Chaired by James Moore, professor of the history of science, Open University, and co-author with Adrian Desmond of Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (2009).

On his bicentenary, Darwin’s ‘brand visibility’ has never been higher. Pundits insist that Darwinian insights are vital to addressing urgent environmental, ethical and religious issues, yet Darwin’s science and his reputation are increasingly contested around the world. What does history suggest may be the outcome? Three historians of science assess whether Darwin has a future in the 21st century. Will Darwin turn out to be just another ‘great’ but dated naturalist? Does his vision of nature sustain or subvert environmental action? Can Darwin’s view of human nature furnish a moral basis for our lives? Will Darwinism survive in theistic cultures by wearing a Designer-label?

Jim Endersby: ‘Darwin’s nature’

Darwin is celebrated as the founder of ‘ecological thinking’ because his writing shows great sensitivity to the subtle pattern of checks and balances that make up what he called ‘the economy of nature’. But Darwin’s understanding of nature was profoundly shaped by analogies with the human economy, with the Victorian world of railways, factories and business. Like most middle-class gentlemen, Darwin was convinced of the value of competition, including the inevitability of bankruptcy and failure. As in business, so in Darwin’s nature: individuals and species would, and must, fail in the struggle for life to ensure that ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’ would continue to evolve. Darwin’s approving use of terms such as ‘colonist’ and ‘invader’ to describe introduced species that successfully replace indigenous ones may strike us as profoundly un-ecological, and even more so his ready acceptance that colonising humans could, and would, drive indigenous peoples to extinction. So, 150 years after the Origin of Species first appeared, does Darwin prompt us to think more ecologically? Or do we need to look elsewhere for guidance on how to preserve our planet and its diverse inhabitants?

Thomas Dixon: ‘Cooperating with Darwin’

The history of science helps us overturn several widely held misconceptions about Darwin, selfishness, and human nature. Darwin did not see the natural world as an arena of unfettered competition and he did not think that human beings were by nature purely selfish. In fact Darwin saw sympathy, love, and cooperation everywhere in nature and thought he had proved that economists and philosophers were wrong to suppose that human beings were driven only by self-interest. In the Descent of Man (1871) Darwin even foresaw a future in which ‘the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant’. Does the history of science suggest Darwin’s vision itself will be triumphant?

Marwa S. Elshakry: ‘Beyond Belief and Unbelief: Darwin in Global Perspective’

Darwin’s name is now often associated with religious scepticism, but this was not always the case. In the Middle East, India, China and elsewhere, Darwin’s ideas were used to reinforce local faith-traditions. Far from signalling the inevitability of a rift between religious belief and unbelief, these examples show how the encounter between evolution and religion was far less antagonistic than many in the West think it must be today. The late twentieth-century rise of a global creationism was a distinctly new phenomenon, one that need not be expected to persist much longer than it has already been with us.

About the speakers

Jim Endersby is a lecturer in history at the University of Sussex, where he teaches courses in the history of science and empire, Darwinism, and utopias. He is the author of Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the practices of Victorian science (2008) and A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology (2007), and the editor of a new edition of On the Origin of Species (2009).

Dr Thomas Dixon is Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London. He has degrees in theology and the history of science, and teaches courses on the intellectual and cultural life of Victorian Britain. His most recent publications are The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (2008) and Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (2008). He has also published a book on study skills entitled How to Get a First (2004).

Marwa Elshakry is Associate Professor in History at Columbia University and currently working on a book manuscript, Reading Darwin in the Middle East.

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