Recent Colloquia

25 November 2014

Malcolm Longair
The Cavendish Laboratory, 1932 to 1953
Decline and Regeneration

Emeritus Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy, Emeritus Professorial Fellow and former Vice-President, Clare Hall.

1932 was an Annus Mirabilis at the Cavendish Laboratory, the culmination of the Laboratory's ascent to the forefront of physics associated with the names of Maxwell, Rayleigh, Thomson and Rutherford.

In 1938 Bragg inherited a laboratory in decline after its glory years.  Then WW2 intervened.  After the war, Bragg changed the direction of activity in the laboratory and within a decade it was back at the forefront of research with the discovery of the structure of DNA and the birth of radio astronomy.  How this came about reflects many changes in  research in physics, resulting from work during the war and the growth of Big Science.  

Duration: 1h27

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18 November 2014

Hasok Chang
Hans Rausing Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, and Professorial Fellow of Clare Hall
Is Water H2O?

Every schoolchild knows that water is H2O, but it was a terribly difficult thing for scientists to learn originally. The story of the changing ontology of water is not only fascinating in itself, but illustrates many important points about the nature of scientific knowledge and its development.

The story begins with the Chemical Revolution of the late 18th century, in which Lavoisier’s proposal that water was a compound of oxygen and hydrogen flew in the face of the traditional wisdom that it was an element. 

Cavendish, who made the first synthesis of water from hydrogen and oxygen, thought that hydrogen and oxygen were merely water with an excess/deficit of ‘phlogiston’. Priestley also defended the phlogiston theory. Even the electrolysis of water in 1800 failed to produce a consensus. 

Agreement that water was a compound was not the end of the story. Dalton gave the formula of water as HO and it took half a century before consensus was reached on the modern set of atomic weights and molecular formulas, including H2O.

Duration: 1h25

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4 November 2014

Boudewijn de Bruin
Professor of Financial Ethics, University of Groningen
Ethics and the global financial crisis
Why incompetence is worse than greed

To the extent that the global financial crisis is a moral crisis, most commentators have focused on banker bonuses, cultures of greed, shameless self-enrichment, and other forms of egoism.

But while unrestricted egoism is certainly a vice, I argue that the more serious moral defects in finance lie somewhere else. They have to do not so much with the motivation of bankers and other finance professionals, but rather with their competence, that is, with the way they gain and process information, make predictions, assess business risks, scrutinise clients, and so on.

Using insight from a recent strand in philosophy called ‘virtue epistemology’, I consider in this talk such things as the ethics of sub-prime mortgages, credit rating agencies and banks, as well as the way in which ‘epistemic virtues’ assisted in the uncovering of the Madoff scam.

Duration: 1h35

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28 October 2014

Laurie Zoloth
Professor of Religious Studies, Bioethics and Medical Humanities, Northwestern University
The Ethics of Translation
Power, Exchange, and Hospitality

Translation may be described as the central act of scholarship across a variety of disciplines: science, theology, philosophy and ethics.  

Scholars are often told that a subsidiary task of all research is translation: basic science needs to  ‘translate’ its theory into understandable public language, or to ‘translate’ research into clinical applications, and theologians and philosophers are urged to ‘translate’ philosophy into political and social policy.  Bioethicists ‘translate’ abstractions into pragmatic decisions.

What ethical judgments are at stake when we ‘translate’?  What is ‘lost in translation’ when theories of human agency are translated into practices, or when practices are re-inscribed, or translated into theory?  Where does the power in the relationship reside? 

This short presentation will explore both the underlying moral appeals in play when scholars ‘translate’ and raise questions about how to do so with both justice and generosity. 

Duration: 1h44

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14 October 2014

John Parker
Vice-President Clare Hall, formerly Director of the University Botanic Garden.
The man who knows everything
The life of John Stevens Henslow

Cambridge's pre-eminence in science began in the early 19th century. Prominent at the time was John Henslow who was a mathematician, naturalist, superb field geologist and founder member of the Cambridge Philosophical Society.  By 29, he was Professor of Mineralogy and of Botany.

He is remembered for recommending Darwin to the Beagle expedition but his research is less well known – the nature of species through understanding natural variation.  

His life changed dramatically in 1837 when he became Rector of a Suffolk parish. He refocused research to the application of science in agriculture and he helped poor labourers in the depressed agricultural economy of the time. His enduring legacy is his championing of universal education and the creation of the University Botanic Garden.

Duration: 1h17

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A Midnight Modern Conversation (Detail)
Engraving by
William Hogarth, 1732

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Updated  Nov.18.2014