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    Lunch Hour Lectures: Bright Sparks – the history and science of fireworks

    By Kilian Thayaparan, on 3 November 2014

    FireworksWith 5 November just around the corner, this Lunch Hour Lecture on how fireworks have helped to develop a relationship between science and art from Dr Simon Werrett (UCL Science and Technology Studies) made the perfect prelude to the annual lighting up of the UK’s skies.

    Dr Werrett began by talking about his interest in fireworks, explaining to the sizeable audience (which he was pleasantly surprised with considering the “freakishly warm weather” for this time of year) that their incorporation of and connection with the seemingly conflicting fields of art and science has always fascinated him.

    He then guided the audience through the history of fireworks, starting with their Chinese origins. Dry bamboo with gunpowder inside is recognised as the first type of firework, the ‘big bang’ used to ward off “mountain men of evil spirits”. In the 12th century, this technique and others like it were then used to create firework displays for Chinese emperors.

    The Mongol invasion of Asia followed by central Europe brought firecrackers and gunpowder technology to this continent in the 13th century, and by the late 15th century firework displays were relatively common. One key example is the Girandola in Rome – a display that celebrated the election of a new Pope, the apocalyptic nature of the display symbolising death and rebirth.

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    Lunch Hour Lecture: On supernovae and serendipity

    By Irrum Ali, on 13 October 2014

    Like a white dwarf, autumn 2014’s first Lunch Hour Lecture was dense, full of energy and tightly packed (but in this case, time and not space, I might add).

    Psyched for my first Lunch Hour Lecture, I was ready to explore the world of supernovae with a 45-minute guided journey through the stars, namely, ones in the process of exploding very dramatically.

    Radiating enthusiasm and demonstrating expertise from start to finish, Dr Steve Fossey (UCL Physics and Astronomy) took a capacity audience on a whistle stop tour of January’s discovery of a Type ia supernova, memorably named SN 2014J, and situated in our neighbourhood galaxy, the sci-fi sounding, Messier 82.

    After summarising the rules for supernovae discovery (there are two options: looking, and not looking but accidentally finding), Dr Fossey gave a short overview of history’s accidental supernova discoveries.

    One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour till it becomes unstable Credit: European Southern Observatory

    One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour until it becomes unstable
    Credit: European Southern Observatory via Oli Usher

    Beginning with Tycho Brahe’s find in 1572 – labelled SN 1572 – which rewrote the rules of astronomy, he moved on to Johannes Kepler’s discovery of SN 1604 in, wait for it, 1604 (are you seeing a pattern here?) and finally, and more recently, SN 1987A, found by astronomers in Chile.

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    Science and the First World War

    By Siobhan Pipa, on 9 July 2014

    German scientist Fritz Haber

    German scientist Fritz Haber

    The relationship between science, technology and warfare is a topic I find incredibly intriguing – partially kick-started from taking a module in Science, Warfare and Peace back when I was an undergraduate in UCL Science & Technology Studies.

    So, with high hopes I headed down to The Guardian offices to watch the final instalment of UCL’s Lunch Hour Lectures on Tour – given by Professor Jon Agar (UCL Science & Technology Studies), titled Science and the First World War.

    Opening with the haunting image of ‘We are making a new world’ by Paul Nash, Professor Agar points out that there is frequently no force so associated with the making of a new world as science.

    If there’s one thing I took away from my undergraduate degree, it’s that science, like nearly every other topic in the world, is not an isolated endeavour – there are always outside influences at play.

    And there is probably no bigger outside influence than the First World War. Often considered the first ‘total war’, science was driven and transformed by the events of a hundred years ago.

    Along with shaping the path science took during this period, the First World War also raised a number of profound and troubling questions about the very nature of science.

    Is science a force for construction? Or is it a force of destruction? Does science transcend international boundaries or should science be recruited to further a country’s cause? How should scientists be used during warfare and is there a way to organise science in the most efficient way?

    Using some of the most prominent scientists of the First World War, Professor Agar proceeded to examine these themes at a much more personal and intimate level.

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    Reconstructing Broken Bodies: From Industrial Warfare to Industrial Engineered Tissues

    By Sophie E Pleterski, on 5 July 2014

    An illuminating and occasionally gruesome lecture for a non-medic unused to the visual realities of war, the third of the series UCL Lunch Hour Lectures on Tour marking the centenary of the First World War tackled a rarely discussed aspect of the aftermath of trench warfare.

    Tonk's, Portrait of a Wounded Soldier Before Treatment Credit: UCL Art Museum

    Henry Tonks, Portrait of a Wounded
    Soldier Before Treatment

    Credit: UCL Art Museum

    The idea of the fabrication of living tissues to repair injuries is well publicised in the media today, from growing an ear on the back of a mouse, to full face transplants.

    However, the development of reconstructive techniques was largely precipitated by the industrial scale of conflict in WW1.

    Sadly, Professor Robert Brown (UCL Surgical Science) was unable to attend, so we were left in the capable hands of Colin Hopper (UCL Eastman Dental Institute) who delivered both the historical and medical sides of the lecture with distinctive candour.

    Early medical advances

    I was unconvinced that a GCSE in Biology would get me through the finer points of tissue fabrication, so it was a relief that we began with the historical context of medical advances during military conflicts since the early 1800s.

    The fact that disease was responsible for a large number of deaths during the wars between 1804-15 was hardly a surprise, but the scale of the death–nearly 266,000 of the 311,806 deaths (85%) in the Army and Navy–showed just how much of an impact developments in medicine made to survival rates in future conflicts.

    Changes in strategy and weaponry in WW1 caused a significant increase in the number of soldiers who sustained head and limb injuries, yet over 92% of wounded British soldiers evacuated to British medical camps survived. Some fairly horrific slides of facial injuries from more recent Iraqi and Libyan conflicts demonstrated the consequences of the types of weaponry used a hundred years earlier. Major General Henry Shrapnel has a lot to answer for.

    As a head and neck surgeon, Colin was interested to know how much the audience thought a person needed of their face to survive. Drawing a line running from the top of the head and behind the ears with his hand, he revealed that anything below that line is an “optional extra”–who needs frontal lobes?

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