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UCL Festival of Culture: The ethics of fighting ISIS: Should we do whatever it takes to prevent terrorism?

ucyow3c13 June 2016

pencil-iconWritten by Sam Stockdale (UCL Arts & Humanities)

microphoneYou would be hard pushed to find a positive thing to associate with ISIS, but the terrorist group certainly knows how to generate a lot of interest, as we saw at this year’s UCL Festival of Culture session ‘The ethics of fighting ISIS’. Attendees squeezed in next to each other without a seat to spare. It was clear from the start that this would not be a ‘death-by-PowerPoint’ session and the audience were faced with some ethical conundrums.

Should we torture?

After immersing the audience in a crash course in consequentialist ethics (through an example of killing one person in order to save five – do the ends justify the means?), Dr Jeff Howard (UCL Political Science) threw down the gauntlet immediately with the first in a series of challenging scenarios:

You have an Islamic State terrorist in custody who has gleefully admitted to planting a dirty bomb in central London with the prospect of killing hundreds of people within two hours. He of course is not admitting to where it is. Do you torture him?

The question immediately divided the room.

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UCL Festival of Culture: Galileo: what was his crime?

Siobhan Pipa2 June 2016

Justus_Sustermans_-_Portrait_of_Galileo_Galilei,_1636

Portrait of Galileo Galilei, Justus Sustermans

Nearly 400 years ago in April 1633 the Italian astronomer, mathematician and natural philosopher, Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Roman Inquisition.

The main charge against him centred on his support for the Copernican theory, aka the belief that a mobile Earth orbited a stationary sun. The theory was thought to contradict the Bible and Galileo was placed on trial for heresy.

But what was Galileo’s real crime? Was science really defeated by religion, as legend would have it? These were some of the questions raised by Andrew Campbell from UCL Italian in his lecture Galileo: what was his crime?, organised as part of the UCL Festival of Culture.

I’ve always found the Galileo Affair fascinating and it’s often used as the leading example of the supposed battle between science and religion. Florence’s Galileo Museum proudly displays his mummified middle finger pointing towards the heavens – a definitive display of science triumphing over the Catholic Church.

When Galileo is mentioned today it’s often not in recognition of his scientific work but as the poster child for the war between religion and science. However, is it as simple as this – can you separate science and religion from the politics, and personalities, of the day?

To delve a little deeper into the whole affair Andrew provided a short run through of the events which led up to 1633.

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UCL Festival of Culture: Me and My Selfie

utnvlru1 June 2016

2015_White_House_Astronomy_Night_by_Harrison_Jones_03_(cropped_to_Ahmed_Mohamed)As part of the UCL Festival of Culture, Professor Lucy O’Brien (UCL Philosophy) delivered a talk entitled ‘Feeling self-conscious: Me and My Selfie’ on Friday 27th May.

The title of the lecture might have implied we were going to take a look at the popular current discourse that our current obsession with taking  ‘selfies’ – using smartphones to take images of ourselves to share online – is a sign that social media is damaging our psyches and turning us all into self-obsessed narcissists.

However, in her talk Professor O’Brien gave an overview of the philosophy of self-consciousness and self-image and tied this in with the implications of our use of smart phones, without making a judgement about whether or not our increasing desire to take and post images of ourselves is necessarily a negative thing.

The lecture gave us definitions of different forms of ‘self-consciousness’, such as ‘ordinary self-consciousness’ – which is being aware of oneself, perhaps if we are giving a talk or speech and people are therefore looking at us, but not necessarily in an uncomfortable or painful way.

“Human beings have different ways of being self-conscious” explained Professor O’Brien. “We can be self-conscious from the inside in an introspective way, or from the outside, aware of ourselves in an ‘objectual’ sense in relation to material things, or experience ‘interpersonal self-consciousness’ in relation to other people”.

People are of course self-conscious to different degrees – some may be more aware of themselves and how they feel others are perceiving them than others. What’s significant about the age we now live in is that “the props that enable us to become self-conscious from the outside have multiplied”.

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UCL Festival of Culture: Urban Well-being

utnvlru31 May 2016

urban-wellbeingAs part of the UCL Festival of Culture, Dr Gustav Milne – Honorary senior lecturer in the UCL Institute of Archaeology –  gave a talk on Tuesday 24th May, entitled ‘Urban well-being: How to live paleolithically-correct lives in a 21st Century City’.

The idea that we as humans are not necessarily designed for the urban environments that many of us now dwell in is not necessarily a new one, but the extent to which this affects our health and life expectancy is more strikingly marked than might be expected.

Gustav began by outlining how our biology evolved thousands of years ago to support the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and explained that while the environments we live in have changed, our basic physiology hasn’t. We were told that our biological legacy dates back 6 million years – our physiology and lung system have not really developed since then.

Gustav mentioned the Grand Challenges project that UCL Archaeology has partnered in with Transport for London and Arsenal football club, along with several other organisations, which examined the health profiles of different social groups and populations within Greater London.

The research carried out for this project discovered a noticeable difference in life-expectancy between residents in boroughs with large areas of green space, from those who live which are densely built-up and populated. Contrary to what we often hear, the figures obtained during this research indicate that it’s not about social class or income but where you live.

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