Demystifying Antarctica: What we’ve learned and what comes next

Posted on: April 20th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Since its discovery in 1840, polar scientists have gone to great lengths to explore Antarctica’s depths. An ice-covered continent the size of the United States and Mexico combined, it has been the site and subject of revelatory scientific studies and awe-inspiring adventures. In its vastness and mysteriousness, it has captured imaginations and has been the source of inspiration for centuries.

The significance of Antarctica’s role in the maintenance of ideal life conditions across the entire planet has since been established. Its ice, ocean and ecosystem play a vital role in the regulation of the global climate. Although many questions remain about its past and its present, particular attention has been turned to the future of its ice sheet. Concerns about its diminishing size have been at the heart of the polarising climate change debate.

In this recording of an online event, Professor Helen Fricker speaks of the physical processes which determine the state of the ice, the transformational impact of satellite observation on her studies as well as the effects that the atmosphere and the oceans have on the ice.

As getting to grips with Antarctica involves a range of specialisms and extensive international collaboration, Helen goes beyond her background in geophysics to provide a comprehensive understanding of the continent. As one of an increasing number of women polar scientists, it’s a privilege to hear from someone who has first-hand experience of seeing the effects of climate change.

This online event was organised in collaboration with the Institute of Physics.

Find out more about the IoP here: https://www.iop.org

*The Dalton Lecture* – What is life?

Posted on: April 20th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Multi-award-winning scientist Sir Paul Nurse considers the most fundamental question in biology, “What is Life?”

In a highly anticipated talk, Sir Paul seeks to answer this profound question by first exploring five great ideas in biology:

The cell – the fundamental unit of all living things

The gene – how do cells store, preserve and pass on information?

Evolution by natural selection – how is genetic information accurately transmitted to subsequent generations, whilst at the same time introducing sufficient variability for natural selection to operate and for new species to arise?

Life as chemistry – how do cells host myriad simultaneous chemical reactions in a minute space? What is the central role of carbon polymer chemistry?

Life as information – how do cells and organisms regulate and coordinate their internal environment? And how do they respond to stimuli and conditions in their external environment?

From consideration of these five fundamental concepts, Sir Paul then relates a number of principles which set a direction of travel towards a definition of life – something that requires more than just a description of what living things do.

His book “What is Life” has been published in 22 countries.

Tour of Jodrell Bank

Posted on: April 20th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Join us for a visit to outer space!

We have arranged for a group of 21 Lit & Phil members to have special rates for admission to the site, including admission to their Dome Show in the new First Light Pavilion – which opened in June 2022.

Jodrell Bank remains at the cutting edge of astrophysics and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019, for its pioneering work in helping to understand the Universe and our place within it.

How did this cutting-edge technology come to be located in a field in Cheshire?

Sir Bernard Lovell came to the University of Manchester in 1945 to study cosmic rays. He needed to perform his radar experiments well away from his Manchester laboratory, where there was no interference from the city’s electric trams. Some land in Cheshire, close to a nearby rise in the ground, called Jodrell Bank, was being used by the University botany department and Sir Bernard set up his equipment there. This was the start of radio astronomy at what is now known at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

Collaboration with an engineer from Sheffield eventually resulted in the construction of a giant radio telescope, known these days as the Lovell Telescope. It played a key role in the space race of the 50s and 60s and was the only telescope in the world capable of locating and tracking the carrier rocket which launched ‘Sputnik’ in 1957.

Bernard Lovell (1913-2012) remained an honorary member of the Lit & Phil for many years and was presented with our Dalton Medal in 2009.

This should be a really enjoyable visit, and places are limited, so book soon to avoid missing out.

 

Event itinerary:

Please make your own way to the site. Travel advice can be found on Jodrell Bank’s website.

11.00 am – Meet at the site entrance. We will then explore the Exhibition pathway, towards the First Light Pavilion. Here, you can view the ‘Story of Jodrell Bank’ exhibit, detailing Sir Bernard’s involvement.

12.00 pm – Watch the Space Dome Show

12.45 pm onwards – Visit the rest of the site, which contains 4 Pavilions, several outdoor exhibitions and an arboretum.

 

Good to know: Lunch can be purchased in the café in the First Light Pavilion (NB this is not included in the ticket price).

Revolutionising cancer screening

Posted on: April 12th, 2023 by mlpMemberAdmin

Are we a step closer to finding a cure for cancer?

Whilst we can often successfully treat those that are diagnosed at an early stage, depending on the type of cancer, even the most effective treatments are often not effective when cancer is diagnosed at an advanced stage. For these reasons, great efforts are made to diagnose cancers as early as possible.

There is only so much that can be done to make the public and clinicians aware of the signs and symptoms. To make real progress, we need better tests and to use them in screening programs targeting seemingly healthy people.

Up until now, screening tests have been designed to look for one specific type of cancer at a time. And a significant problem is posed by the unreliability of these tests. For every early detection of cancer, several others receive a false-positive. If we were to have 20 different screening programs (one for each type of cancer), most people would receive a false-positive result once every few years. These false-positive tests cause anxiety, can lead to invasive further testing and are expensive to the NHS.

But there is hope on the horizon. Recent technological advances allow for the detection of tiny fragments of genetic material present in the blood. This, for the first time, offers the possibility of having a single blood test for many different types of cancer. One such test can detect 50 different types of cancer, with varying success, and it only very rarely gives a false positive result. If this test can find cancer early enough, it could revolutionize the way we approach cancer control.

Join us as we host Professor Peter Sasieni to learn more about this ground-breaking development in cancer research.

Demystifying Antarctica: What we’ve learned and what comes next

Posted on: March 14th, 2023 by mlpMemberAdmin

Since its discovery in 1840, polar scientists have gone to great lengths to explore Antarctica’s depths. An ice-covered continent the size of the United States and Mexico combined, it has been the site and subject of revelatory scientific studies and awe-inspiring adventures. In its vastness and mysteriousness, it has captured imaginations and has been the source of inspiration for centuries.

The significance of Antarctica’s role in the maintenance of ideal life conditions across the entire planet has since been established. Its ice, ocean and ecosystem play a vital role in the regulation of the global climate. Although many questions remain about its past and its present, particular attention has been turned to the future of its ice sheet. Concerns about its diminishing size have been at the heart of the polarising climate change debate.

Professor Helen Fricker will speak of the physical processes which determine the state of the ice, the transformational impact of satellite observation on her studies as well as the effects that the atmosphere and the oceans have on the ice. We will ask her how the future of Antarctic ice will affect sea levels globally.

As getting to grips with Antarctica involves a range of specialisms and extensive international collaboration, Helen will go beyond her background in geophysics to provide us with a comprehensive understanding of the continent. As one of an increasing number of women polar scientists, we look forward to hearing from someone who has first-hand experience of seeing the effects of climate change.

This online event has been organised in collaboration with the Institute of Physics.

Find out more about the IoP here: https://www.iop.org

*The Percival Lecture* – Technology: a tool and a mirror

Posted on: February 27th, 2023 by mlpEditor

How has human behaviour influenced and transformed computer technology?

In the 75 years since the invention of The Baby – the world’s first stored programme computer – technology has transformed our lives. We often think of it as something ‘other’ than us – mathematical, logical, objective. In fact, our minds map themselves on to the technology we make in unexpected ways, not just at the user interface, but right down to the computer processor.

Understanding why this happens and how to capitalise on it is crucial to our ability to innovate effectively.

The ultimate power of this knowledge is exhibited in the Principle of Locality, which states that the information we need next when running a computer program is located near in space and time to the information we are using currently.

Whilst this rule is seen almost ubiquitously in computing – supporting everything from system architecture to web browsing – its origins, in computer scientist Peter Denning’s years of painstaking empirical work observing how programmers work, are rarely discussed.

Caroline Jay has spent the last 20 years studying the relationship between humans and machines. In this talk she will explore the complex and often hidden process of creating technology, and demonstrate, starting with Denning’s early work, how an understanding of human behaviour and society is just as crucial to its success as the use of logic and mathematics.

 

Event schedule

Drinks reception for members and special guests: from 6.00 pm

Talk starts: 6.45 pm

Event ends: 8.00 pm

Interview with Professor Caroline Jay

Posted on: February 27th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Q: You work at the intersection of Psychology and Computer Science. Why is it important to consider the relationship between human behaviour and machines?

A: If we want technology to work for us, we have to study how we use it. Theories of how we think, feel and behave in general terms can be useful in informing the design process. But they only go so far. This is because using technology itself changes our behaviour. It’s essential to study these things empirically.

“We need to continually reflect on whether technology is working as it should and whether it is having a positive or negative impact on society.”

Q: What can the structure of the machines we build tell us about ourselves as individuals and as a society?

A: We think of machines as objective, but we forget that they are designed by humans. They map very closely to our thought patterns and behaviours. Inadvertently, Artificial intelligence has been great at reflecting back to us some of society’s deep-rooted inequalities.

An example of this is facial recognition technology, which works better for White people than for Black. This is because of the assumptions made by the engineers who created it. It is important to learn from these situations. We need to use their teachings to design better technology and, more importantly, a fairer society.

 

Q: You’ve been studying Psychology and Computer Science for two decades. Have there been any standout, pivotal moments for both your personal research and that of your peers during this time?

A: For many years, Artificial Intelligence has relied on large amounts of data and significant computational power. It is very energy intensive. This is not environmentally sustainable, so we really need to change our approach.

My thinking around this has been influenced by Cynthia Rudin at Duke University, and my close collaborator Alaa Alahmadi. Our work has shown that using human expertise and cognition to inform the design of AI can vastly reduce the amount of data and computation it requires to make decisions. The way in which this kind of AI works is also much more transparent and easier for humans to understand. This goes against the current rhetoric that says ‘the computer knows better than us – give it the data and it will be more efficient and effective’.

Of course, current AI can do some things more effectively than humans, but it is seriously limited in other ways.

“I think in the future hybrid approaches to AI, where humans and machines work together, will become much more widespread.”

Q: What do you think our relationship with technology will look like in 50 years’ time? For example, will the use of technology be more democratised?

A: I’d like to think technology use will become more democratised but, at the moment, it’s becoming more polarised. People who don’t have access to technology for social or economic reasons are becoming excluded from important aspects of society, like banking and education.

As we develop new technologies, we must make sure everyone’s voices are heard, and that people are able to consider how it would affect their lives.

“I’d like to see much greater use of responsible research and innovation practices.”

These ought to evaluate the benefits and harms that new technologies might pose for everyone in society. They should be used earlier on in the design process, so they are not just an add-on, but can truly direct development.

Interview with Dr Anders Sandberg

Posted on: January 30th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Q: Do you believe that climate change is the greatest threat to humanity’s long-term survival? If not, what is?

A: Climate change on its own is not the end of the world… but it makes the world worse. It amplifies other risks, and it might make it harder for us to solve the problems we need to solve for our survival. Nuclear war, bioweapons, uncontrolled AI and the fragility of the global supply chains keeping us alive are more direct risks.

“We need a peaceful, prosperous world with less distractions to handle the risks.”

Q: Out of the “low probability, high risk” existential threats that you’ve studied, is there one that you think we’re not talking about enough? Conversely, is there one whose danger we are exaggerating?

A: We used to not talk enough about nuclear war. When I grew up in the 1980s, it was an ever present, ominous threat. As we later found out, there were some extremely close calls where things truly hung in the balance. Then 1990 came. The Eastern Bloc disintegrated, and people seemed to forget about the missiles in their silos. This is despite the many accidents and close calls. For more than 20 years the threat was ignored. Now it’s back in our minds again.

“The moral of this story is that, collectively, we often quickly forget about very important threats.”

One threat that people have conveniently forgotten about today is that of pandemics. We are so tired of Covid. Yet, the important lessons on how to handle the next pandemic (which could be worse) need to be learned.

 

Q: As a Fellow at the University of Oxford Philosophy Faculty, what role can philosophy play in helping us confront such existential risks?

One function of philosophy is to help us figure out the moral value at stake: how bad are these risks compared to others? How do we balance our current needs against those of future generations? How does fairness come in to play? Another function of it is helping us reason under uncertainty: how do we think well about future, unprecedented events? When we know we are uncertain about important things, how should we act? Is it better to be safe than sorry or is it better to wait and see?

“Philosophy is great at working with problems for which we do not yet have a great theoretical understanding. As we figure it out, it often moves into some other specialised department. But thinking wide and abstract about problems is a good start.”

Q: Considering how our over-reliance on technology is one of the primary causes of man-made global warming, how do you think that technology can help us mitigate its risk?

A: Not having technology can also be dangerous. Our ancestors often died from starvation, exposure and disease: they were very vulnerable. Similarly, old-fashioned industry and agriculture tends to be more polluting. It requires more land (hence leading to a shrinking global biodiversity). The solution to climate change involves using low-carbon energy sources. Making agriculture efficient enough so that less land is needed, telework, carbon capture and so on. It is not just about technology, of course, but if going green is cheaper, more luxurious and more convenient than the current practice, it will happen.

Food and climate change

Posted on: January 24th, 2023 by mlpEditor

About a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from food; global emissions average 6 kg CO2e per person per day, ranging from less than 2 kg/day in Africa to 13 kg/day in the US.

Controlling emissions to limit temperature rise cannot be achieved without a very large reduction in food related emissions. This means changes in diets and food production. How might this be done? And what can we do as individuals?

These, and other questions you want to raise, will be considered during this online session.

Our main speakers are Peter Ball (Professor of Operations Management at the University of York) and Beckie Lait (also at the University of York carrying out PhD research with fixourfood.org). They will respectively explore systems thinking behind UK farming practice (in particular, urban farming) and the carbon footprints of our food choices.

Following their introductions there will be ample time for your questions, suggestions and comments.

Good to know: the meeting will be online using the BlueJeans meetings app, allowing all users to be seen and to join the discussion.

Further reading: Professor Sarah Bridle – who gave an online talk to the Lit & Phil – sets out the problems in her book “Food and Climate Change” – a highly recommended source (and available as a free e-book).

Can routine screening for Downs Syndrome be ethically justified?

Posted on: January 10th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Do screening programmes for pregnant individuals prevent or cause harm?

We often assume that increasing the number of screening programmes in pregnancy is a good thing.  These programmes are frequently justified as a way of empowering women (and others who are pregnant) with information about the foetus they are carrying, enabling more informed choices about their pregnancy.

In this talk, Professor Rebecca Bennett will argue that the routine nature of these screening programmes means that they put pressure on individuals. Not only to accept screening but also to consider termination of pregnancy.

If we are committed to respecting the autonomy of individuals, then this gives us good reasons to support any sufficiently autonomous choice to choose termination.  However, Rebecca will argue that the pressure involved in routine screening programmes undermines rather than empowers autonomous choice.

Further, if screening programmes are justified as an attempt to prevent harm, then a strong argument can be made that they are counterproductive. Not only in terms of harm to pregnant individuals but also in terms of reinforcing negative attitudes around conditions such as Downs Syndrome.

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