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Lectures - Spring 2010

Spring 2010


17th April
Alex Butterworth
The World That Never Was

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the popular imagination was filled with fantasies of militant Anarchism: of airborne attack and viral plagues. International terrorism made its first, furious appearance. Anarchist cells carried out a wave of bombings and assassinations across Europe and in America – or so, at least, the governments of France, Britain and especially Russia liked their populations to believe. The truth, however, was far murkier. Infiltration and surveillance comprised one part of the armoury of the security services, but equally important was the use of agents provocateurs and black propaganda. Drawing on research from his new book, The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents (The Bodley Head, 2010), Alex Butterworth told the story of a generation that saw its utopian dreams crumble into dangerous desperation, offering a revelatory portrait of an era with uncanny echoes of our own.

8th May
John Allen
Cultures and Biomes of the Biosphere

The biosphere is “the place on earth’s surface where life dwells” and biomes are the ecosystems within it. In this talk John Allen, renowned ecologist and engineer, metallurgist, adventurer and writer used his experience of building man-made closed ecological systems and his uniquely poetic, spiritual vision to explore the complex inter-relationships of the biomes that make up our world: deserts, forests, grasslands; coral reefs and marshes; world cities and agriculture.

29th May
Charles Fernyhough
How Little Minds Lead to Big Ideas

Scientific research has told us a great deal about the mental worlds of babies and small children. In this talk, Charles Fernyhough explored how the study of young children’s minds can reveal some powerful truths about what it means to be human. He showed how developmental psychology provides insights into the nature of consciousness and knowledge; how we can better understand our powers of reason by listening to children thinking out loud; and what children’s reasoning about the afterlife can tell us about God. In showing how these distinctive human capacities take shape in the first three or so years of life, he demonstrated that the careful study of children’s minds is anything but child’s play.

12th June
Michael Barwise
The Subtle Sounds of Nature

How many of us have heard the sound of a lark’s wing beating the air? Urban communities have become accustomed to ubiquitous, low-level background noise that masks a wealth of detail. Starting from a basic introduction to the nature of sound and noise, this talk used recordings to show that the quieter sound world is not lost to us, but can be recovered through the exercise of “naďve attention”. By attuning ourselves to the subtle sounds that generally escape the urban noise-conditioned ear, we can better and more intuitively understand the world we inhabit.

26th June
David Pendlebury
A Taste of Persian

Using the power of its rhyme, rhythm and imagery, and the clearly discernible language patterns it contains, David Pendlebury offered a beginners’ guide to understanding a beautiful couplet of classical Persian poetry in the original. Progressing gradually, first through the sounds, then the transcription, and leading on to an overview of the vocabulary, structure and Persian script, he used the lively new teaching method he has developed in his forthcoming book, Absorbing Persian (The Octagon Press, 2011), to give us a first glimpse of this beautiful and metaphorically potent language.


ALEX BUTTERWORTH is a writer, dramatist and broadcaster. The joint author of Pompeii: The Living City (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), he is a frequent contributor to publications including The Observer, History Today and BBC History. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford and the Royal College of Art, studied screenwriting at the National Film School, and is currently an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham.

JOHN ALLEN is best known as the inventor and Director of Research of Biosphere 2, an airtight 13 acre miniature earth under glass, where eight scientists lived and worked for two years in the 1990s. Allen is Chairman of Global Ecotechnics, and a director of Biospheric Design and of the Institute of Ecotechnics. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Linnean Society, and the Explorers Club. He is also a co-founder and trustee of October Gallery, London, which exhibits the work of artists from around the world. Under the pen name Johnny Dolphin he has chronicled his personal history alongside the social history of his many destinations in novels, poetry, short stories and plays. His latest is his memoir, Me and the Biospheres (Synergetic Press, 2008).

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH is a writer and psychologist. His intellectual biography of his three-year-old daughter, The Baby in the Mirror (Granta, 2008), was critically acclaimed in the UK and has been translated into five languages. He is also the author of a novel, The Auctioneer (Fourth Estate, 1999). He teaches psychology and creative writing at Durham and Newcastle Universities, and has written for The Guardian, Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph. You can find out more about Charles’ work at charlesfernyhough.com.

MICHAEL BARWISE trained as a musician and linguist and has worked as a trans- lator, photographer, engineer, lecturer in electronics and business consultant. He has been recording the sounds of the natural world since spending a decade in the Outer Hebrides from 1989 and has recently produced a CD of wild soundscape recordings.

DAVID PENDLEBURY Mixed parentage (from both sides of the Tweed) and frequent moves in childhood probably contributed to David Pendlebury’s lifelong interest in language and cultural issues. After obtaining an MA in modern languages at Cambridge University, early jobs included a year as translator/interpreter in Germany and working on the team of Harrap’s Standard German Dictionary. A considerable part of his adult life has been spent teaching abroad, predominantly in the Islamic world. He has translated books from French, German, Persian and Arabic. He is currently interested in producing materials designed to make classical Persian more accessible.