Halifax Café Scientifique

Halifax Café Scientifique is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, people meet to hear about the latest ideas in science and how it might affect their lives. It is also a forum for debating science issues and promoting public engagement with science. Typical audiences are not professional scientists, but people who are interested in science in general. Audience ages range from teenagers to those of pensionable age. The links above give details of past and future meetings.

Viaduct Café Bar

When and Where 

Please note that the following information is 'historic', in the sense that we are currently arranging for alternative venue options. 

We normally meet at 7:30 pm on the first or second Wednesday of the month at Dean Clough, Halifax, West Yorkshire HX3 5AX. The regular cafe venue is currently undergoing a change of management and - for the moment - meetings are in Dean Clough's Crossley Gallery, with pre-event food being served downstairs in the Design House Restaurant (open from 6.00pm). See 'Cafe Hot Food Menu' above or look up the Design House Website on www.designhouserestaurant.co.uk  TEL: 01422 383242. 

Parking: From the direction of the town centre, turn right off Dean Clough before the big building on the right and drive down the ramp (the barrier opens automatically). From the car park walk down to the sliding doors below the word 'ENTRANCE'. If you are coming by public transport Halifax railway station is about a mile from Dean Clough. Google Maps.


Meetings involve a speaker giving a talk for about 45 minutes. This is followed by a short break to replenish drinks, after which there is a discussion session where all kinds of questions may be asked. Afterwards, we pass the hat round for contributions to the speaker's travel expenses.

Mailing List and Feedback

You can join our mailing list if you would like to receive email updates about future meetings. If you have any suggestions for topics or speakers at Halifax Café Scientifique, please feel free to contact us and provide feedback.

Host and Organisers

Halifax Café Scientifique is hosted by Dean Clough and facilitated by Vic Allen of their Press and Publicity office. The local organiser is Paul Ruffle, assisted by Richard Peters. The Chefs' School at the Viaduct is part of the Cooking School - the charitable training resource whose high-tech base is at Dean Clough.

Other Café Scientifique Meetings

Café Scientifique meetings take place throughout the UK and around the world. Click the UK Café Scientifique link above for national and international information. There is also a good article about Café Scientifique on Wikipedia.

Past Meetings

Wednesday, May 6th 2015 @ 7.30pm

Sonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound

with Professor Trevor Cox, University of Salford

Trevor Cox has been hunting for the sonic wonders of the world. A renowned professor who engineers classrooms and concert halls, Trevor has made a career of eradicating bizarre and unwanted sounds. But after an epiphany in the London sewers, Trevor now revels in exotic noises – creaking glaciers, whispering galleries, stalactite organs, musical roads, humming dunes, seals that sound like alien angels, and a Mayan pyramid that chirps like a bird. With forays into archaeology, neuroscience, biology, and design, Cox will explain how sound is made and altered by the environment, how our body reacts to peculiar noises, and how these mysterious wonders illuminate sound's surprising dynamics in everyday settings – from your bedroom to the opera house. Trevor encourages us to become better listeners in a world dominated by the visual and to open our ears to the glorious cacophony all around us.


Trevor Cox is Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford where he carries out research and teaching, focusing on architectural acoustics, signal processing and audio perception. He is also an author and radio broadcaster having presented many documentaries on BBC radio and written books for academics and the general public.


Wednesday, June 3rd 2015 @ 7.30pm

The Science of Concrete

With Professor Philip Purnel, University of Leeds

Every year, around 4 tons of concrete is made for every man, woman and child on the planet - around 30 billion tonnes. More than all other man-made artefacts put together, concrete literally underpins the development of modern urbanisation. It is ubiquitous and essential, yet its manufacture is often accused of causing more than its fair share of carbon emissions. Phil Purnell examines what we mean by a ‘fair share’, and shows that the impacts of concrete are outweighed by its advantages. Phil Purnell undertakes research into the durability and resilience of composite materials and structures. He is best known for his research and teaching about the world’s most popular composite – concrete – from his PhD at Aston University in glass-fibre reinforced cement to his latest works on the carbon footprint of construction materials. Along the way, during a Senior Lectureship at Warwick University, he has investigated non-destructive evaluation methods for structures, bone-repair cements and 3D printing and worked with the nuclear, domestic appliance, heritage and construction industries on various projects. Appointed to a Readership at Leeds in 2009, Phil became Deputy Director, then Director of the new Institute for Resilient Infrastructure, leading research into how the physical infrastructure systems underpinning our way of life can adapt to changes in the social, economic and physical environment in which they are operated.

Wednesday, April 8th 2015 @ 7.30pm

The Science of Arson

With Stephen Andrews, school of Forensic and Investigative Sciences, University of Central Lancashire

Most criminal minds seem to agree that the best way to destroy the evidence of their wrongdoings is to burn it; so they’d seem to be onto a pretty safe thing when a crime is the actual fire itself. Steve Andrews explains the theory, process and practice of investigating the causes of suspicious fires.

Stephen Andrews joined UCLan after 12 years as a senior forensic scientist with the Forensic Science Service where he investigated fires and non-terrorist explosions. Steve is research active within the area of fire and hazards science and is a member of the Centre for Fire and Hazards Science.

Wednesday, March 11th 2015 @ 7.30pm

Fungi: Friend or foe?

with Dr Robin Sen, Manchester Metropolitan University

The recent arrival of ash dieback disease caused by a fungus, Chalara fraxinea, has undoubtedly raised public awareness to the destructiveness of members of the fungal kingdom. Agrochemical and pharmaceutical industries have spent large fortunes developing fungicides and fungal antibiotics to protect crop plants, livestock and ourselves from soil borne fungal diseases. Yet these broad-spectrum antifungals lose efficacy over time and are highly toxic to non-target animals and humans because of close inter-kingdom ties between fungi and animals that share a common eukaryotic cell physiology.

Dr Robin Sen is Reader in Soil Microbial Ecology and Biotechnology at Manchester Metropolitan University. 

Wednesday, February 11th 2015 @ 7.30pm

Forensic Entomology – Crime Scene Insects

with Dr Stefano Vanin, University of Huddersfield

Since several different kinds of insects are involved in the decomposition of a body, they can prove useful in speculations concerning phenomena that occurred at the moment of or just after death. One aim of forensic entomology is to provide useful information concerning the time of death by analyses of insect evidence. In cases of an extended Post Mortem Interval, insects may assist in determining the season of death. It is also possible to determine post-mortem movement of a body as there are also differences in the insect faunas between buried, submerged and exposed remains. 

Wednesday, January 7th 2015 @ 7.30pm

"Dark Energy"

with Prof. Phil JamesKavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology.

What is the Dark Matter that galaxies seem to be made of? Where is the Dark Matter in galaxies and clusters of galaxies, and how does that compare with the predictions of numerical simulations? What is the Dark Energy that seems to be making the Universe expand at an accelerating rate? And exactly how fast is it accelerating anyway? Dr Phil James is a Principal Lecturer in the Astrophysics Research Institute of Liverpool John Moores University. 

Wednesday, December 3rd 2014 @ 7.30pm

• Stilled Life: The Art and Science of Taxidermy

with Dr. Ebony Andrews, HE/FE Researcher specialising in Fine Art, Art History, Museology, Heritage & Cultural Studies.

In an age without photography, deep freezes or super fast transport taxidermy was a key component in the scientific understanding of the natural world. Today it tends to be associated with sporting trophies and the excesses of Victorian sentimentalism. Even so, the craft of taxidermy is still with us. As a specialist in museology, Ebony Andrews has advanced skills in natural science specimen preparation for display and research collection purposes – including skinning, tanning and fur dressing techniques, taxidermy conservation and restorative work, along with model making and painting techniques. In this talk she offers an overview of a practice which has played seminal roles in past cultures, examines its pertinency to natural history studies and ponders what its future might be…

Wednesday, November 12th 2014 @7.30pm 

Making sense of nonsense - medicine and the media'Bob Bury, Retired Consulant Radiologist, Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust

Bob Bury’s talk highlights specific examples of misleading media stories - touching on common confusions about associative and causative statistics, misleading percentage claims and casual allegations of ‘blunders’ by medical institutions. A retired radiologist with early experience as both a GP and a surgeon, Bob touches on topics ranging from vaccinations to screening problems, and from statins to radiation. He concludes with a few tips on how to differentiate fact from fiction in medical reporting. 

Wednesday 4 June 2014 at 7.30pm

Measuring Air Pollution and Monitoring Climate Change from Orbit

Prof. Peter Bernath, Department of Chemistry, University of York

Climate change and air pollution are often in the news. In this presentation aimed at a general audience, I will discuss how recent advances in remote sensing from a variety of satellites provide a global perspective. Traditionally organic molecules responsible for air pollution are measured in situ as are the concentrations of greenhouse gases associated with climate change. Advances in remote sensing instruments on satellites in low earth orbit allow these species to be measured on a global scale. This talk will focus mainly on the observations of the Canadian Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment (ACE) mission. An introduction and overview of the ACE mission will be presented. Science results discussed will include the observation of various organic molecules associated with air pollution, greenhouse gases (including CO2) and polar mesospheric clouds (“noctilucent clouds”).

Wednesday 9 April 2014 at 7:30 pm

Wednesday 7 May 2014 at 7:30 pm

Death of the Sun

Professor Albert Zijlstra, Jodrell Bank centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester

Stars are beautiful, even in death. A star like the Sun ends its life by ejecting its outer layers. The ejecta briefly become ionized by the remnant, hot core of the star: these so-called planetary nebulae are among the prettiest of objects in the night sky. The Sun will create one in about 5 billion year time. Much of this late evolution is not understood. We do not know what drives the catastrophic mass loss, which can remove up to 80% of the mass of the star in less than a hundred thousand years. We do not know what shapes the ejecta. Planetary nebulae are often elliptical, bipolar, or even multi-polar - few are round: what can cause the wind of a spherical star to become so a-spherical? What happens to the ejecta after the planetary nebula is gone? The ejected material is enriched by the product of nuclear burning: much of the light elements in the Universe, such as carbon and nitrogen, and half of all elements heavier than iron, come from stars like the Sun. Do we see the signs of the Sun's ancestors in the Solar System? This talk will discuss the origin and evolution of planetary nebulae, as studied in Manchester.

April 2nd 2014 at 7.30pm

Stable Populations: an essential condition for sustainability

John Davies, Population Matters

The human population has risen from 2 to 7 billion in the last 85 years according to the US Census Bureau. Population Matters is a 20 year old charity whose patrons include David Attenborough, James Lovelock, Jonathon Porritt and Jane Goodall. It has consistently focused on population growth as an environmental concern - promoting smaller families and emphasising the importance of sustainable consumption. 

John Davies, from Population Matters, will discuss the role that science and technology has to play in resolving the problems that are being caused by the global population increase. 

Wednesday 5 March 2014 at 7:30 pm

What Next for our Nuclear Waste?

Prof Bruce Yardley, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds

Nuclear waste exists in the UK and has been steadily accumulating since the 1940’s, with large volumes of diverse waste. The legacy wastes contain a mix of materials from civil and military sources and will be extremely radioactive over the coming centuries, decaying back to the level of a Uranium ore body over hundreds of thousands of years. In recent years there has been a big push to package these legacy wastes in stable forms for storage, and for new build reactors this will be planned from the outset and funded by the power companies.  The problem is, what to do with it once packaged – do we sort it permanently or leave that to our grandchildren?

After extended consultation by an independent panel (CoRWM) almost a decade ago, the view was reached that the only way to ensure that the radioactivity could be permanently removed from the surface environment, with very little chance of leakage, was to bury it deep underground (c. 500m) in a geological setting which would contain any radionuclides that did escape, and this approach was enshrined in a 2008 White Paper which also laid down that communities must volunteer to host a radioactive waste repository and be involved in the evaluation process with an option to withdraw.

In the event, only Cumbria volunteered to host a UK waste site, but despite strong support in Copeland, there was intense lobbying against a permanent disposal site and a vote in January 2013 by Cumbria County Council rejected the idea of carrying out further investigations to see if a suitable site could be found;  the process has now stopped. Consultation for a new White Paper with a revised plan has just ended. 


Wednesday 5 February 2014 at 7:30 pm

Visual Illusion: Reading Between the Lines

Dr Peter Thompson, Department of Psychology, University of York

The human visual system is perhaps the most sophisticated computational device known. Presented with an ever-changing pattern of light reflected off objects in the 3-D world, it interprets the images formed on two, postage-stamp sized 2-D retinas into a colourful, 3-D moving world. And in real time! This task is computationally huge and can only be achieved by employing short-cuts, knowledge and tricks to make the task easier. Nearly all the time your brain makes the right assumptions about the world and what you perceive adequately matches what is out there, but sometimes your brain gets it wrong. These errors are extremely useful in understanding perceptual processes. What they reveal is just how clever the brain is most of the time. 

In this talk Dr Peter Thompson from York University shows us many examples of when the brain gets things wrong. Some of these demonstrations have been devised by vision scientists to exploit known failings of the visual system but others occur in the real world, and may create problems for us in everyday life. However some demonstrate just how clever the visual system is.

Wednesday 8 January 2014 at 7:30 pm


Dr Robert Dryfe, School of Chemistry, Manchester University

Graphene – an atomic plane of hexagonally bonded carbon atoms – was discovered in 2003 in Manchester by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov… using sticky tape. It has since been hailed as the material that will shape the 21st Century just as silicon (discovered 1940) shaped the 20th Century. Faster computers, flying cars and super-fine condoms are all, we’re told, on the verge of development. But – following a warning this Xmas that investors are being sucked into ‘graphene scams’ – is all the fuss really justified? Dr Robert Dryfe, coming as he does from ‘the home of graphene’, is ideally placed to outline its properties and offer an update on its progress.

Wednesday 4 December 2013 at 7:30 pm

Where's All the Antimatter and Does it Matter?

Prof Roger Barlow, International Institute for Accelerator Applications, University of Huddersfield

Antimatter is not just the stuff of science fiction, it's a well established area of particle physics. Positrons, or anti-electrons, were predicted and discovered 80 years ago, and since then we have learned a great deal about them and their properties, and even put them to use in medical imaging. It turns out that not only electrons, but protons and neutrons and all the other species in the particle zoo have corresponding anti-particle equivalents. But despite 80 years of progress we still don't understand why the universe we live in is unbalanced, full of matter and empty of antimatter - this is one of the big unanswered questions of particle physics. This talk will explain what we know and how we know it, together with what we don't know and how we hope to find out.

Wednesday 6 November 2013 at 7:30 pm

Sleep and Memory

Dr Penny Lewis, Neuroscience of Aphasia Research Unit, University of Manchester

Dr Lewis will introduce you to the neural bases of both sleep and memory. Having first given some background on these, Penny will then outline evidence that memories are actually processed during sleep, and can be strengthened as a result. She will talk about the spontaneous reactivation of memories during sleep, how this relates to such strengthening, and where dreams fit into the picture.

Wednesday 9 October 2013 at 7:30 pm

Exploration of the Solar System

Dave Wright, World Space Week, British Interplanetary Society

The UK has played a significant role in the exploration of the solar system. From the NASA cricket team and their contribution to the Apollo programme to the critical role of UK scientists and engineers in the formation of the European Space Agency (ESA), the UK's role has not received the acknowledgment it deserved. This presentation is intended to highlight UK contributions, but also point the audience to some of the excellent resources made available via the space agencies to allow them to explore the solar system via their own computers.

Wednesday 3 July 2013 at 7:30 pm

Quantum Mechanics for Dummies

Professor George Lafferty, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manchester

The great 20th century physicist, Richard Feynman, once said that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So we are all dummies, even the speaker, when we try to comprehend how quantum mechanics governs the behaviour of the Universe at atomic and subatomic levels. At the same time, even though we don't understand it, we can make calculations with quantum mechanics that give us detailed predictions that have been consistently borne out by experimental work, such as the prediction and recent discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson. In this talk we will look at some weird and wonderful phenomena in quantum mechanics, such as quantum entanglement, teleportation, tunnelling and interference, whose existence seems to defy our common sense, and we will ask how things can possibly be the way they are.

Wednesday 5 June 2013 at 7:30 pm

Bacteria: Your Friend and Mine?

Professor Tom Smith, Biomedical Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University

Among the many kinds of living organisms on earth, the vast majority are too small to see with the naked eye. Microscopic bacteria and other microbes are essential for maintaining the health of humans and animals, for keeping the environment a safe place to live and for producing food, drink and other valuable products. On the other hand, microorganisms can be dangerous: they can cause diseases, corrode metals and masonry, and harm the environment. This talk we will introduce you to some of the important bacteria that live around and inside us, and the scientific methods that are used study them. The talk will focus on using "good" bacteria to minimise industrial pollution, make chemicals in an environmentally friendly way and to protect metals and other materials. We will also discuss the problem of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" and how cutting-edge research techniques may help us better to understand disease-causing bacteria in hospitals and the world at large.

Wednesday 8 May 2013 at 7:30 pm

Male and Female Brains: Same or Different?

Dr Laura Nelson

Dr Nelson talks about what is taboo and controversial to many people: men's and women's brains. Many people assume that men and women are naturally different in the way that we think and behave, but Laura provides evidence and reasoning to make you think otherwise. As she dissects the landscape of science underlying the gender debate, Laura unpicks the gender myths that have strong influences on how you perceive yourself and others. Gender stereotypes are powerful and shape men and women so that they fit different roles in society. They also limit us in the choices we often make. But how does this happen? And what can we do to overcome them and live a life that does not bind us but expands our choices?

Wednesday 10 April 2013 at 7:30 pm

Thorium: An Alternative Nuclear Future

Prof Bob Cywinski, International Institute for Accelerator Applications, University of Huddersfield

There is considerable debate about whether the twin global crises of energy shortage and climate change can be mitigated by nuclear power. Indeed, there is continuing concern about the safety of uranium and plutonium fuelled nuclear reactors, the management of nuclear waste and the issue of proliferation. But what if we had a nuclear fuel that was low risk, low waste and sustainable? Surprisingly such a fuel does exist: it is thorium. In this presentation I will discuss the need for nuclear power as an essential part of a balanced energy economy, and suggest ways in which thorium could be used to fuel an alternative, and a safer, nuclear future.

Wednesday 6 March 2013 at 7:30 pm

Bird Sense

Professor Tim Birkhead, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield

Most people's notion of what it's like to be a bird is hopelessly limited. 'A wing guided by an eye' is how someone once described birds: a flying machine with good vision. But they are so much more than this. What about the other senses: smell, touch, taste, and hearing? Are birds just like us? No. We are finally, beginning to realise what it means to be a bird. Not only is their vision different from ours - they can see in the ultraviolet, which we cannot - some birds can echolocate and many have extraordinary magnetic senses. Do birds have emotions? Many species form pair bonds that endure for years, up to twenty years in my guillemots. What do they feel when, like the pair described above, are reunited. What do they feel if their partner dies? The idea that birds might have similar feelings to ourselves is extremely contentious. Some people think that birds experience the same range of emotions as we do, but others (mainly scientists) think that to feel emotions birds must be sentient. At present there's no consensus, but there's a shift - based on recent research - towards accepting the idea that birds are much more than automatons.

Wednesday 6 February 2013 at 7:30 pm

GM Crops: Real Benefits, Real Concerns?

Professors Howard Atkinson and Peter Urwin, Centre for Plant Sciences, University of Leeds

Currently 923 million people are chronically hungry and we need 50% more food to be produced within 20 years to feed the growing world population. We have little more land available globally for productive cropping and the yield from some agricultural land may fall. There are several key questions we must address. Can GM crops help feed the world and what are the real limitations to ensuring food security? What are the risks for us and the environment? Are the concerns real and can they be managed? Is this science irrelevant to European needs? How would being a hungry African rather than a well fed European alter your viewpoint?

Wednesday 9 January 2013 at 7:30 pm

What Kinds of Things are Theories?

Professor Steven French, Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds

What kinds of things are scientific theories? Are they like paintings or photographs, in the way they represent the world? Or are they like pieces of music, in the way that different scores/texts correspond to the same piece/theory? And are theories created in the same way as works of art? Are they discovered or created through a flash of insight, or 'Eureka moment'? Was Einstein like Mozart when it came to being creative? Or is the creative process in science different from that in art? In my talk I'll explore answers to these and similar questions in order to shed light on some of the intriguing similarities and differences between art and science. And I shall suggest that we get off on the wrong foot in this comparison if we think that theories are kinds of 'things' to begin with.

Wednesday 5 December 2012 at 7:30 pm

The Strange Tale of the Internet Fridge - New Technologies and Their Impact

Richard Woodcock, University of Bradford

How is it that some new ideas meet with runaway success, while others fail to take off? What processes are involved in the development of a creative idea, its move into production, and its prospects for popularity and practical use? This talk will begin with a quick journey back in time to 1984, and a discussion of technologies which were then referred to as 'the chip, the bird, the wire and the screen' - the very beginnings of what has more recently been called 'digital convergence'. We will then take a look at some of the thinking around the innovation/diffusion process, and will finish by looking at some examples of new technologies over the last few decades - successes, failures, and surprises!

Wednesday 7 November 2012 at 7:30 pm

Magical Memories: The Beatles, Music and the Mind

Dr Catriona Morrison, University of Leeds

Psychologists are increasingly aware that memory problems are the result of retrieval rather than storage. We are using more and more innovative means by which to investigate memory. Music is an underused tool but it provides a means by which to uncover memories of events that are decades old and have perhaps been little thought about since. In the data I'll present tonight we asked people for their memories of The Beatles - for a song, an album, a concert, a personal encounter. We have accumulated a database of around 4000 memories that highlight to us the way in which music can transport you forcefully back to earlier times and help overcome the retrievability problem.

Wednesday 3 October 2012 at 7:30 pm

The Nature of Energy

Prof Peter Atkins, University of Oxford

What is energy? Although we use it in every aspect of our lives, pay enormous sums for it, and fear for its future availability, few can say exactly what it is. That the concept is important is reflected by the fact that once the concept had been identified in the early nineteenth century, it swept to prominence. After presenting an explanation of it, I shall consider the laws that govern it. These are the laws of thermodynamics. Each law raises a variety of questions. For instance, what is temperature? Why does the total energy of the universe remain the same? Where do the laws of Nature come from? How much energy is there in the universe? But as well as dealing with the quantity of energy, we have to consider its quality. That means we have to understand the concept of entropy too, a concept that greatly puzzled the Victorians. I shall present a qualitative account of this hugely important concept. Through it, we shall see what drives every action in the universe.

Wednesday 4 July 2012 at 7:30 pm

A Tunnel to the Beginning of Time

Dr Peter Edwards, Department of Physics, University of Durham

In November 2009, following repairs, the start button for the biggest scientific experiment in the history of humankind was pressed. Using the energy required to power Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is investigating many of the mysteries that the universe has kept hidden since its birth. Using the LHC we hope to travel back to the Big Bang, create mini black holes, and reveal the nature of the dark side of the Universe. Come along to explore the immense scale of the experiment, find out how the LHC works, and ponder some of the big questions it will address.

Wednesday 6 June 2012 at 7:30 pm

Scientific Progress and the Economic Impact Fallacy

Professor Philip Moriarty, Nanoscience Group, School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Nottingham

In these financially straitened times, shouldn't scientific research in universities be focussed on near-market R&D and potentially economy-boosting applications? Isn't it right that the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills, the research councils, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) seek to maximise return on government investment in science? And what's wrong with now requiring academics to include a two page 'impact' statement with each grant proposal, describing potential pathways to improving the socioeconomic impact of their research? In this talk, I will discuss how the research councils and HEFCE, by coercing academics to work on near-market and short-term problems perceived to have direct socioeconomic impact, fail to understand the fundamental societal role of universities and will ultimately, and perhaps counter-intuitively, damage the return on taxpayers' investment in publicly-funded research.

Wednesday 9 May 2012 at 7:30 pm

Are We Alone? Looking for Life on Other Planets

Dr Simon Goodwin, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield

Over the last 15 years hundreds of planets have been discovered orbiting around stars beyond our solar system. This has re-ignited interest in the possibility of life on other planets and given rise to a new branch of science - astrobiology.  I will explain how we have found these planets and what they are like. I will also talk about how we could find life on another planet within the next ten years and what that life might be like. I will also discuss the possibility of finding other intelligent civilisations.

Wednesday 4 April 2012 at 7:30 pm

Polymaths - Who Needs Them?

Alasdair Beale

Are polymaths merely jacks of all trades and masters of none? The orthodox view is that real progress comes from the sustained efforts of specialists who concentrate their efforts on a limited area of research in order to make breakthroughs. Alasdair Beal challenges this view and discusses the achievements of some of history's great polymaths, including Leonardo da Vinci and the English scientist Thomas Young (who could speak Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Hebrew, German, Chaldean, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Amharic before he was fourteen).

Wednesday 7 March at 7:30 pm

Synthetic Biology - A Brave New World

Dr Bruce Turnbull, School of Chemistry, University of Leeds

Imagine a world in which we could make fuels or pharmaceuticals in the same way we ferment malt to make beer. A world in which materials as strong as steel are made without industrial waste, or artificial viruses can be used to administer anti-cancer drugs without the usual side-effects of chemotherapy. Synthetic biology promises new technologies that could change our lives through the design and construction of new biological parts and devices, and the redesign of existing, natural biological organisms for new purposes. So, how can we redesign living organisms to perform useful functions? Can we create artificial life in a laboratory? Bruce Turnbull, a synthetic chemical biologist from the University of Leeds will provide an overview of synthetic biology - the possibilities, practicalities, perils and potential profits.

Wednesday 8 February 2012 at 7:30 pm

The Duality of Cholesterol - Myth, Money and Method

Glyn Wainwright, THINCS, Leeds

Your brain is about 2% of your body mass but it contains 25% of your body's cholesterol. Cholesterol accounts for around 20% of all the molecules in all the membranes of every cell in your body. If this proportion of cholesterol is reduced to 18% your cells will begin to fail, become deformed and start to leak. These insights have implications for the treatment of many diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. Our modern medical obsession with the lowering of our 'blood lipid cholesterol' may need to be reversed as the long term effects on our health become better understood. This talk will explore the myths that led to the characterisation of cholesterol, a vital chemical component of all our lipids and cell membranes, as being either "good" or "bad". The commercial exploitation of this popular cholesterol myth accounts for the generation of global profits measured in billions of dollars. Is it possible to resolve the conflict of interests that has arisen between control of the funding for medical research, the influences on the regulation of medical practice and the need for the scientific freedom implicit in the exploration and expression of factual evidence?

Wednesday 4 January 2012 at 7:30 pm

Through the Looking Glass: The Molecular Wonderland of Herbs and Spices

Professor John Bradley, Department of Chemistry, University of Hull

Human beings are one of very few species that will eat anything they can digest, and we have the unique technical ability to transform raw food that is unappetising into something that is attractive to look at, good to smell and taste, and even good to feel in the mouth. But when cooking, or just eating, your favourite meal, have you ever stopped to think about why, for instance, your steak has turned brown and developed a meaty flavour after cooking? Or why something as simple as hot fat transforms a bland piece of potato into a tasty chip? Or why freshly baked bread has such an appealing aroma? Or, for that matter, why brown, cooked food tastes so good? We will explore how we detect desirable aromas and tastes, the chemistry involved in their development during cooking, how tastes and aromas interact, and how the molecular structure of flavour components changes the way we identify them.

Wednesday 7 December 2011 at 7:30 pm

Fossils in Amber: Snapshots of Prehistoric Forest Life

Dr David Penney, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester

Amber provides the most diverse and best fossil record of insects, providing us with a glimpse into long extinct tropical forests. These are exciting times for amber paleobiologists due to new advances in digital imaging and photomicroscopy. New discoveries in recent years of fossiliferous Cretaceous deposits (including the first for Africa) have extended the known ranges of many living groups back to the time of the dinosaurs. Newly discovered Tertiary deposits, including from Australia and India will help resolve major historical biogeographical processes. Work on the more familiar deposits continues apace, with new discoveries and ever increasing datasets conducive to quantitative paleoecological investigations. This talk explores the diversity of fossils in amber and how they may help us predict current global change. Sub-fossilised inclusions in copals are often ignored by palaeontologists who consider them not old enough to be of significance. However, they have the potential to be highly informative at many different levels, including as a proxy for understanding bias of preservation in amber, as a record of current extinctions and as a potential reservoir for molecular data to pre-date any current information based on museum collections.

Wednesday 9 November 2011 at 7:30 pm

Primate Communication: Links to Human Language?

Dr Katie Slocombe, Department of Psychology, York University

This talk will explore why trying to trace the evolutionary path of human language is such a challenging task. It will outline comparative research as one fruitful avenue in this endevour. Dr Slocombe will discuss some of the commonalities and differences we see when comparing communication in human and non-human primates. She will then present some studies on chimpanzee vocal communication, that she has conducted, to give the audience a feel for how such primate work is carried out and to show some exciting recent findings. Dr Slocombe will discuss with the audience: how these data relate to our understanding of human language evolution; the key questions for the future; and the challenges in achieving these goals. During the discussion the audience can explore the vocal versus gestural origins of language and the evolutionary pressures that may favour the evolution of a complex communication system.

Wednesday 5 October 2011 at 7:30 pm

Alice's Secrets in Wonderland

Dr Melanie Bayley, Oxford University

Since its publication in 1865, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been read as a piece of pure nonsense fiction. Some, like the author, see it as a fairy story without any fairies, some as a drug-fuelled descent into the mayhem of the subconscious, but very few see it as mathematical satire. It turns out that the Wonderland is much more than a madcap flight of fancy. Lewis Carroll was in reality Charles Dodgson, a tutor in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, and at the time that Alice was written, theoretical mathematics was in the grips of a quiet revolution. Alice's Adventures is an attempt to subvert the new mathematical theories by letting their flawed logic run amok; in mathematical terms, it's an exercise in reductio ad absurdum. Alice's exchanges with the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat can be read as mathematical lampoons. Dodgson, the traditionalist, is letting the abstract maths of the lecture room run its hare-brained course at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

Wednesday 20 July 2011 at 7:30 pm

The Planet in a Pebble

Dr Jan Zalasiewicz, Palaeobiology Group, Department of Geology, The University of Leicester

This is the story of a single pebble. It is just a normal pebble, as you might pick up on holiday - on a beach in Wales, say. Its history, though, carries us into abyssal depths of time, and across the farthest reaches of space. Its matter has been shaped by the cosmic violence of supernova explosions and the construction of the Solar System. Particles within it have washed across the shores of vanished continents, and been carried into seas that were quite unlike ours today. There are traces within it of different kinds of strange and extinct life-forms, and its fabric bears witness to a long journey into the depth and darkness of the Earth's crust, amid the migrations of rare elements and the creation of petroleum. The rise and fall of mountains have, too, left their mark on it, and the creation of ores of copper and lead and perhaps of gold too. The waves sculpt the pebble in the geological instant that is now - but its history is not yet finished. It contains within it matter that will take long journeys across space and through the far future.

Wednesday 8 June 2011 at 7:30 pm

Problem Solved Then? Reflections on 35 Years as a Nutritionist

Dr Alan Hackett, Centre for Tourism, Events and Food Studies, Liverpool John Moores University

Malnutrition is alive and well and living in the UK. It contributes to the huge inequalities in health to the extent that life expectancy can vary 10 years or more across the social divide with a further 17 years of morbidity as an additional burden on the least well off. It is possible that life expectancy may begin to fall and the NHS collapse unless this malnutrition is brought under control. Incredibly malnutrition is still all too often unrecognised and untreated even in NHS hospitals. In Liverpool we have children who have never tasted a strawberry and the notion that 'healthy' foods are unavailable, expensive and inconvenient is rife. The Government's response includes inviting the food industry to help write (and deliver) their policy on healthier eating and expecting 'informed consumers' to make the 'right' decisions. What is the appropriate balance between collective and personal responsibility?

Wednesday 28 April 2010

The Future: A User's Guide

Adrian Nixon, Nixor Limited

Personal computers, the web, digital cameras, mobile phones... for most of us the future has arrived. But was it what we expected? And who decided it?

Wednesday 24 February 2010

How I Wonder What You Are: The Birth, Life and Death of Stars

Dr Paul Ruffle, Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester

How stars form in the interstellar medium of our Milky Way galaxy, how they then evolve and synthesise the elements that make life possible, and how at the end of their lives, they return this material to the interstellar medium for the next generation of stars.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Why Does e = mc2 ?

Professor Jeff Forshaw, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manchester

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Exactly What is Sleep?

Professor Jim Horne, Sleep Research Centre, Loughborough University

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