What kinds of energy are liberated when art and science collide?

LANS DS, Spring 2018, ECT_2

The speaker for this new event in our Distinguished Lecture series, Daniel Glaser, is one of the most qualified speakers to engage with the topic of (liberal) Arts and (natural) Sciences. He is a neuroscientist, but who started by studying first maths and English literature, before moving into brain imaging (fMRI and all that jazz) to study how prejudice and expectation shapes the world. And the intertwining continued, and in 2002 he was appointed as “Scientist in Residence” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA, London), and in 2014 he became the first scientist to sit on a Man Booker prize judging panel.

Through these movements between so many cultural field, Daniel became very aware of the importance of allowing the space and encouraging the movement towards interactions between people with different ways of seeing the world. In this lecture he will talk about the commitment to diversity as a leadership quality that is equally effective in promoting development both in arts as well as in sciences.

This cultural hopping brings it an interdisciplinary understanding. And here Daniel proposes an apparently paradoxical idea – interdisciplinarity is about ignorance. Ignorance and courage. The courage to cross the boundaries of your own discipline, and explore a different construct of the world and interact with people who are talking a different ‘language’. The courage to ask the ‘stupid questions’ which many a times are opening a different perspective. And what would be more interdisciplinary than a dialogue between the arts and sciences, and so much that each could benefit from each other.

Daniel will give the next talk in our LANS Distinguished Lecture Series, on Wed 21st Feb 2018 ((link here)). From its title: What kinds of energy are liberated when art and science collide? be prepared to witness intellectual fireworks and be challenged, maybe, in your preconceptions. And for that, you need to be there so please book your place (free entry) on eventbrite: here.

For the members of public outside the University of Birmingham, the lecture will take place in the Arts 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 Edgbaston campus of the University, or come with the train (there is a ‘University’ station – check the map).

contributed by Emil C. Toescu)


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)]