'A most inspirational evening'

Six quick-fire taster lectures from University of London academics provided a fascinating smorgasbord of different scholarly pursuits
Speakers at Undergraduate Open Evening
The speakers: Dr Sarah Barnsley, Prof Ken Gemes, Richard Campanaro, Dr Sarah Ansari and Dr Sarah Rauchas
In their charting of human character, human actions and human emotions, literary texts reflect back at us about what it means to be human

Offering a series of six quick-fire, thought-provoking taster lectures giving new insights into topics as various as Frankenstein and Gandhi, our recent Undergraduate Open Evening, ‘Insights, Inspiration and Information’ proved a hugely enjoyable – not to say enlightening – evening.

Andrew BollingtonFollowing an introduction to the University of London International Programmes by our Chief Operating Officer, Andrew Bollington (pictured right), the intellectual fireworks got underway courtesy of Richard Campanaro, a current doctoral student in LSE’s Department of International Relations.

You might think that teasing out the differences between country, nation and state in a 15-minute talk would be impossible. Yet that’s exactly what Richard achieved in a virtuosic, notes-free romp through the subject. To draw out the differences between each term, Richard used the example of his five-year-old self trying to understand the Falklands conflict – a conflict the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges famously described as ‘Two bald men fighting over a comb’. Traversing a range of examples, from interstate and civil wars, to failed states, to diasporas and multinational states, Richard highlighted the complexities of applying these three terms to reality.

In ‘Gift of fire: why computer scientists need philosophers’, Dr Sarah Rauchas (Department of Computing, Goldsmiths) explored some of the links between computing and philosophy in an intriguing whistle-stop tour of symbolic logic, truth tables and Boolean algebra, which – as we were to discover – forms the basis of the circuitry in modern computers. Dr Rauchas noted that the especially interesting thing about Boolean algebra is the similarities it shares with propositional logic: it has propositions (symbols), it has truth values (T, F), and it has operators (AND, OR, NOT), and that infinitely many expressions can be built out of just this basic algebra.

"Professor Gemes argued that the rejection of an ultimate, transcendent authority did not, for Nietzsche, equate to a rejection of all authority."

Professor Ken Gemes (Department of Philosophy, Birkbeck) used the madman's proclamation of the death of God from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science as a springboard for his lecture, ‘Nihilism and the death of God’. Professor Gemes argued that the rejection of an ultimate, transcendent authority did not, for Nietzsche, equate to a rejection of all authority. Rather, it necessitated a move towards an authority that comes from within – we have to create our own grand narrative or meta-narrative.

Speaker at podiumIn ‘Frankenstein on the couch: how literary critics help us explore our dreams, secrets and fears’, Dr Sarah Barnsley (Department of English & Comparative Literature, Goldsmiths) noted how developments in related subjects such as psychology, philosophy, sociology, politics and anthropology have fed into our understanding of what literary texts do for us as human beings.

In their charting of human character, human actions and human emotions, literary texts – Dr Barnsley (pictured left) argued – reflect back at us about what it means to be human. Using an excerpt from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr Barnsley showed how different critical approaches – liberal/humanist, psychoanalytical, feminist, Marxist – can produce richly varied interpretations. Literary works are of interest to scholars of other humanities disciplines not just for what they seem to say about the human condition, but how they communicate these meanings.

Taking to the stage again for her second lecture, ‘Alan Turing – philosopher, mathematician, computer scientist’, Dr Sarah Rauchas examined two important questions that Turing posed: firstly, what is computation? Secondly, what is intelligence? In answer to the first question, Turing devised a theoretical machine, known as a Turing machine, that was able to perform computations. What Turing worked out was that you could write sets of instructions that could do absolutely anything that was computable. Dr Rauchas then turned briefly to Turing’s influential paper published in the journal Mind in 1950, ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’, in which he explored the concept of machine intelligence and whether machines can think – what we now refer to as the ‘Turing test’.

"Gandhi’s rejection of Western values was illustrated in a powerful sequence of slides that showed his dress transmuting from stereotypical suit and tie to the traditional loincloth."

For the final quick-fire taster lecture, Dr Sarah Ansari (Department of History, Royal Holloway) posed the question, ‘Gandhi: Saint or politician?’ Dr Ansari noted that Gandhi’s struggle against colonial rule, founded on his philosophy of satyagraha and his Non-Cooperation Movement, placed him at the very centre of twentieth century history. Gandhi’s rejection of Western values was illustrated in a powerful sequence of slides that showed his dress transmuting from stereotypical suit and tie in 1900 to the celebrated photo of him on the steps of 10 Downing Street in 1931, dressed in traditional loincloth.

University of London International Programmes - Event standsChatting to those attending during the course of the evening, two things became immediately clear: that there was a real desire for these quick-fire talks, and that the evening had really hit the intellectual spot.

“I enjoyed all of them – it’s useful to be able to sum up a topic in 15 minutes”, commented Patrick Harvey (BSc Psychology, 1983), a psychometric consultant and a member of the Alumni Association. “I do tend to do this a lot because my interests span so many things: psychology, telecommunications, philosophy, astronomy and anthropology.”

“The evening for me was most inspirational”, said recent LLB graduate Veronica Hamilton (pictured right talking to Student Advisory Officer, Peter O'Hara). “I get snippets of the intellectual grace and presence in which I sit. It’s beautiful to be here and I wouldn’t exchange it for anything. I liked the talk on Alan Turing because my Mathematics lecturer in Trinidad and Tobago taught us about Turing, so it connects dots for me. It brought back wonderful, warm memories.”

You can watch all six taster lectures on our YouTube channel:

   
   
   

The University of London International Programmes offers undergraduate programmes in Computing, English, History, International Relations, Philsophy and a range of other subject areas.