Diffraction and Entanglement between Science and Art

This is not about a Cafe Culturel event, but the event is very much about the idea of talking and thinking about Science in a Cultural context, in a presentation that is open to the public.


It’s time now for a philosopher, well versed in Deleuze and the style of Continental philosophy, and a practicing artist, moving from poetics to images, to take on, for us, the LANS audiences, the Sciences. And Prof. Johnny Golding (here) knows about the subject, as the former director of the Institute of the Converging of Arts and Sciences (ICAS) and of the International Centre for Contemporary Art Research at Birmingham City University.image_for_johnny

Johnny will give the next talk in our LANS Distinguished Lecture Series, on Fri 20th Oct ((link here)). From its title: Diffraction, Entanglement and the Sensuous Unnatural Act (called Art), be prepared to be challenged and taken places, but let yourself go, open the mind to the exploration and you will be taken by the flow. To do that, you need to be there, on that late November Tuesday evening, so book your place (free entry) on eventbrite: here.

For the members of public outside the university, the lecture will take place in the Main Lecture Theatre, on the first floor of the Arts Building (building R16 (red) on this map of the campus); for the disabled access further info can be found here. You can either drive to the Edgebaston campus of the University, or come with the train (there is a ‘University’ station – check the map).


(contributed by Emil C. Toescu)


Cafe #5 – Cognitive Decline: presentations and representations

King Lear is in towking-lear-2016n – and a new RSC production is on stage in Stratford-upon-Avon and on cinema screens. King Lear – the tragic figure of a powerful figure who loses bit by bit everything, from the material to the personal. Many commentators of Lear’s journey to his nadir had been in awe of Shakespeare’s capacity to capture and portray the subtleties of behavioural change associated with the cognitive decline characteristic of neurodegenerative diseases. It is probably true to say that every generation, nay!, every director and every audience tries to find their path to engaging with Lear’s destiny. If the themes of crumbling political power or that of family or state breakdown are relevant, for many middle-class westerners, the portrayal of cognitive decline that Lear suffers, and of which he is aware (*), is a focus of contemporary anxieties.

Using King Lear as the starting point, this Cafe Culturel event proposes a wider discussion on the general theme of how Cognitive Decline is variously represented in the arts and how those representations map on the clinical presentations. To set the scene, we will be helped by 3 outstanding guests: Tom de Freston, is an artist who just completed a Creative Fellowship at University of Birmingham and is currently the Artistic Director at the Wellcome Trust’s Medicine Unboxed. He recent work engaged directly with King Lear and produced various representations and interpretations of Poor Tom, a figure of madness and poverty, who might be seen as the personification of the disintegration into which the world of the play descends (more info – https://vimeo.com/173525071).

Tom de Freston’s “Poor Tom”

Joining Tom, with be Prof. Russell Jackson, Emeritus Professor of Drama at Birmingham University, and whose work focuses on the relationship between text and performance, between presentation and representation.  The third member of the Panel is Dr.  Femi Oyebode,  Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham and  Consultant Psychiatrist for Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust and whose last book (2012) Madness at the Theatre traces the representations of this psychiatric disorder over the last two millennia.

The event, as all Cafe Culturel events is open not only for the students at the University of Birmingham (LANS, Drama, Film and Medical Students) but also to the public at large. The format is the usual cafe format: a 20 min presentation from each member of the panel, followed by a Q&A session, which will be chaired by one of our LANS students who is taking a major degree in Drama: Sam Forbes.

Emil C. Toescu


  • The date: Tue 18th Oct,
  • The time: 6:30 pm
  • The place: thinktank (entry through the Groups Entrance on Level 0, and there will be a member of staff there to greet.) and the event will take place in the cafe/picnic area.

-> Please note that there is access to all sorts of refreshments and snacks (but not hot food), and you are, as usually, strongly encouraged to take advantage of the bar being opened (and kept open especially for us).

For this event we are particularly grateful to thinktank and the Birmingham Museums Trust, for providing us with the facilities.

(*) “I am a very foolish fond old man, / Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;/ And, to deal plainly,/ I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Cafe #4: When Science Meets Culture: Exploring the Genetic Imaginary

While the endeavours of genetics have and continue to change biological, forensic and clinical sciences, the language of genes has profoundly and overwhelmingly reshaped our culture. How do we even begin to unpack the extraordinary place ‘genes’ have in public discourse and the popular imagination? To what degree does the ‘genetic imaginary’ correlate with or exceed the underpinning science? How has the language of genes come to pervade public discourse – as much a trope of personal narrative as of public anxiety? How can we gain critical purchase not only on the conditions and consequences of a particular science, but on its projective seductions, its terms of persuasion.

DNA: from image (Franklin’s x-ray diffraction result) to image (Crick’s pencil sketch)


Focusing on a brief example from a myriad of possible examples, this evening will consider these and other questions as we explore the cultural apotheosis of the gene not only as a pre-eminent locus of scientific and social explanation, but also as a powerful object of spectacle, fantasy and attachment.

The speaker is Deborah Lynn Steinberg, Professor of Gender, Culture and Media Studies at the University of Warwick, who has written widely on the cultural impact of genetics and the intersection of scientific and popular imaginaries. Her recent book Genes and the Bioimaginary: Science, Spectacle, Culture (2015) has been recently published by Ashgate.

The talk will take place at the Cherry Reds Cafe, central Birmingham, on Tuesday 23 February; be there for 6:30 to order your drinks and food and thus ready for a start at 7 pm.

I’ve been there and seen The Evolution of Complexity


Unsure of how far the discussion of evolution could go, I attended with an open mind, excited to see how the night would proceed. The environment was very nurturing for the audience, with the availability of real ale and other exotic beers, good food, and a cosy feel.

The event started with a 30 minute presentation by Dr Pritchard addressing the theme of the evening. The starting point was a reference to the natural instinct of humans to organise chaos and find patterns in apparent disorder as the real reason behind the search for answers to the origins of human life. Using direct readings from Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ (6th edition, we were told, which is the cheapest on the market of “early” copies), Dr Pritchard described evolution as a combination of random and ordered processes: while the genetic mutation is somewhat random, the survival of those individuals having that mutation is not.

The presence of extreme complexity throughout nature was used as the basis for an argument for a ‘design by a creator’. In 18th century Hume gave a strong philosophical rebuttal of the argument but it wasn’t until Darwin’s ideas of “descent with modification” that alternative mechanisms would be available. One of the main arguments of the supporters of Intelligent Design (ID) is the concept of irreducible complexity, and the example of a mouse trap. Dr. Pritchard kindly brought not one but several such contraptions, to illustrate the ID’s party trick: remove any one piece from it and the system becomes functionally useless. Thus, the IDs argue, for all of the parts of the system to work so perfectly in cohesion with each other, they must have existed together from the beginning, thus perfectly designed. However, Dr Pritchard argued, if one uses the example of bacterial flagella (another ID workhorse :-)), which consists of multiple subunits, many of these had different roles in earlier evolutionary stages; some were originally designed as secretory organs and only later became essential functional elements for the locomotion bacteria. Another lesson to take home offered by Dr .Pritchard is to avoid a too simplistic reverse engineering hypothesis: look at a function or a feature and then try to find an evolutionary explanation for why it needed to be that way. The development of alternative functions may lead to the appearance of biological “spandrels” (in architecture or object design this term refers to spaces or areas of no apparent function e.g. the empty corners created when a circular clock face is mounted within a square frame).

After a short break to refill empty glasses and discuss the issues raised with fellow audience members, the second part of the event started, in which Dr Toescu, the chair of the session, lead a question and answer session, inviting members of the audience to pose questions. It was refreshing to see such a wide range of individuals in the audience, from university lecturers, through students to members of the general public. This allowed for a wide range of opinions and some very thought-provoking discussion. Being able to discuss an academic topic with such a broad audience demographic made the evening really enjoyable. It’s times like these that make me realise how great being a student in Birmingham is. Being able to partake in thought provoking discussion with people from across the globe, united by a thirst for knowledge and a desire to share their own perspective. I’d highly recommend an evening at Café Culturel to anyone wanting to learn something new and partake in engaging discussion in a relaxed environment.

[contributed by Joshua Tulley (3rd Year Medical Science Student, University of Birmingham)]

Café #3: Evolution of Complexity

A New Year means a new programme of Café Culturel events, and our first meeting is set to be a real rip-roaring romp of an evening. The esteemed Dr Jeremy Pritchard (University of Birmingham) will be entertaining and enthralling us with his talk entitled Evolution of Complexity. He shall be exploring the thorny issue of complexity, where it comes from, and what all of this means for the theory of evolution.

Dr Jeremy Pritchard

The idea of “irreducible complexity” is one that even Darwin himself grappled with as he attempted to work out how it could fit into his theory of evolution. Structures such as the eye, it has been claimed, undermine his idea’s very foundations. After all, the question could be posed, how could something so complex be the result of slow, cumulative changes?

In the safe hands of our expert speaker, we will be taking a look at the various pieces of evidence that indicate that this is, indeed, the case. Dissenting voices are absolutely welcome and we hope to have a lively debate as a part of a lively evening!

So, whether you’re a diehard Darwinian, an arch-sceptic who believes that the animals came in two by two rather than over several million years, or somewhere in between, we can’t to wait to meet you and find out what you think.

This evening shall be hosted at the firm favourite Cherry Reds, John Bright St., Birmingham from 7-9pm on Tuesday 26th January. Arrive early to snap up the best seats in the house and if you want something to get you in the evolutionary mood, try out the clip below:

Oh and did we mention that it’s FREE?

Contributed by Harry Diserens.

Cafe #2: The Impact of Neuroscience on Society

We are hugely excited to announce that the second Café Culturel will be given by the world renowned Professor Barbara Sahakian (University of Cambridge). The talk will be entitled The Impact of Neuroscience on Society: The Neuroethics of ‘Smart Drugs’ and will focus on cognitive enhancing drugs.

BJS photo
Professor Barbara Sahakian

Cognitive enhancing drugs are needed to treat the cognitive dysfunction of disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and schizophrenia. However, some of these cognitive enhancing drugs are now being used by healthy people and this lifestyle use is increasing. Since there are no long-term safety and efficacy studies in healthy people, this is a major concern, particularly as many people access these prescription only drugs over the internet. There are also many neuroethical concerns, including the issues of direct or indirect coercion. As a society, it is important for us to consider what forms of enhancement are acceptable and whether certain groups in particular will benefit from enhancement.

In short, we will consider the actions of cognitive enhancing drugs on the brain, their effects on cognition and the impact of the increasing lifestyle use of these drugs on society.

The Café will take place from 7-9pm on Thursday 19th March at Cherry Reds, John Bright St, Birmingham and, as always, entry is completely free. It promises to be an engaging and thought provoking evening and we can’t wait to see you there!

Café #1 roundup

Prof. Saul Becker at Café Culturel

Last week saw the first ever Café Culturel and we are pleased to announce that it was a huge success! Prof. Saul Becker gave a fascinating and engaging talk on the hidden world of young carers and the discussion that followed was similarly stimulating.

We thought we’d give you some of the highlights of the evening in case you couldn’t make it along on the night – feel free to comment below and leave your thoughts on any of the following points:

  • 200,000 children under the age of 18 provide up to 50 hours of care per week. A shocking statistic that set informed the rest of the discussion: what do these children do and why do they have to do it
  • Most young carers are invisible – because of the social stigma surrounding care giving, particularly as a child, we simply don’t know that they are there. The 200,000 figure comes from census data but the authorities believe there to be many more beneath the surface, including many who don’t even realise that they are “young carers”.
  • If a child cares for their parent, should this be seen as child neglect – even abuse – on the parent’s part?
  • What happens to young carers in later life? Certainly, at the time of caring, they are more disposed to mental health problems but more research needs to be done to see if this develops as they grow older. The problem of university also came up – how should we best deal with the thousands of students who need to care for their relatives whilst studying?
  • Might there be some positive aspects to being a child carer? It may not have been right for them to have to provide care in a society such as ours but it can shape their personalities for the better, making them into what they are today. Saul himself speculated that had he not been a young carer, he might not have gone on to carry out so much research in the field.

We hope this gives you a flavour of the discussion and debate that went on last week. If you want to get involved in the future, details of next months Café will be posted soon – it would be great to see even more people there!