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UCL events news and reviews


Steven Chu – challenges and opportunities of climate change

By Oli Usher, on 1 April 2014

I’m sure Malcom Gladwell has something to say about Steven Chu. He is improbably successful in two totally different fields, and part of me wonders how he ever found the time to do it.

Steven Chu

Steven Chu. Photo: US Department of Energy

No sleep, perhaps?

Part-way through a stellar academic career in physics (including a Nobel Prize before he hit 50), Chu took a leave of absence.

In his four-year sabbatical, instead of sailing around the world or learning the violin like normal people might, he went to work for Barack Obama, serving as his Secretary of Energy until 2013, before heading back to a post at Stanford University when he was done.

In London to examine a physics PhD – Chu’s expertise is in laser cooling – he dropped by to offer a public lecture (Harrie Massey Lecture Theatre, 19 March) to a packed auditorium at UCL.

The topic: the challenges and opportunities of climate change – a subject he grappled with in his time in public office.


Should we experiment with the climate?

By Oli Usher, on 13 March 2014

The SPICE experiment (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The SPICE experiment
(credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For a lecture which focused largely on Heath Robinson-esque contraptions made of hosepipes and helium balloons, Jack Stilgoe’s public lecture on climate experimentation (11 March) featured surprisingly frequent references to Frankenstein. For one with a question mark in its title, it had surprisingly few answers. Neither of these is a bad thing.

Stilgoe sets the scene with a story about four friends holidaying together by Lake Geneva. The summer’s a total washout, and the friends spend their time writing and talking instead of hiking and walking. But these aren’t just any old friends, and this isn’t any old summer.

It’s 1816, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia has dimmed the sun, and Mary Godwin – soon to be Mary Shelley – has just written what will eventually be published as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Mary Shelley’s classic story is a widely used parable in sociology of science and technology: the theme of what happens when you create a new technology you can’t (or won’t) control is such a fundamental issue in the field. In the case of climate engineering, Stilgoe says, the parable is particularly apt since the power of the technology is so huge and the questions of how to govern it are so intractable.

So how could we control the climate?


Greening the recovery: the report of the UCL Green Economy Policy Commission

By ucyohru, on 27 February 2014


“We need to recognise the fierce urgency of now,” declared Professor Paul Ekins at the opening of the launch of the UCL Green Economy Policy Commission’s Greening the recovery report, in what appeared to be the beginning of an impassioned rallying cry for a radical overhaul of the UK’s economy.

Instead, Professor Ekins pointed out that this was a soundbite uttered by the Chancellor George Osborne five years ago.

By repeating it, his aim was to sound a note of caution about the likelihood that the recommendations by UCL’s Green Economy Policy Commission – comprising a range of UCL, visiting, and external academics – would be adopted.

This was despite the fact that the panel of experts brought together to discuss the report all broadly agreed that its objective of a greener economy was laudable, even if they didn’t agree on how to get there.


Back to the future: climate change lessons from the Pliocene era

By zclfg58, on 17 February 2014

Of the many clichés passed from generation to generation, “You must understand your past in order to understand your future” is both the most intuitively correct and consistently ignored.

Too often the historian’s excavation of the past is considered to be of merely academic interest rather than a stark warning about the social, political and economic conditions that can re-enable historic calamities.

Dr Chris Brierly (UCL Geography), who delivered the Lunch Hour Lecture on 13 February, is pursuing historical research to help us comprehend our past and possibly safeguard our future from devastation.

V0023203 An ideal landscape of the Pliocene period with elephants, hiInstead of looking back 100 years at Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Brierly looks back 5 million years, when the world was curiously similar yet significantly different to the one we inhabit today.

Brierly explained how his research concentrates on mapping the tropical climate of the Pliocene epoch, which began around 5 million years ago and ended 2.6 million years ago.

Just like the present, the Pliocene world was both warm and cool: grassland expanded and ice-caps accumulated. It did, however, have a structurally different tropical sea climate.