Darwin lecture series: Risk

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For the past 8 weeks, I, along with my co-organisers Dr Layla Skinns and Tony Cox, have been running the Darwin College lecture series at Cambridge. Now in its 25th year, this free public lecture series, which takes place from January-March every year, brings together scholars from a range of disciplines to think about a single theme and what it means in their area of expertise. In 2010, the theme has been RISK, which, given the economic credit crunch, continued war and threat of terrorism, alongside the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, is perhaps more in the front of our minds than ever before.

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The lectures are available to view as podcasts and videos on line: www.darwin.cam.ac.uk/lectures. Alongside the lectures, you can see a collection of short videos, paintings and poetry created by everyone from school children to university students to adults from the Cambridge area responding to how they think of Risk.

During the course of the 8 weeks, the different speakers have taken us from Risk and statistics, to the mass media hype of science, to the neuroscience of risk management in the brain, to the trends of blame-avoidance in government, to the concept of risk in the ancient world, to modern-day terrorism, the threat of earth extinction in asteroid collisions and the risk of climate change. Speakers have ranged from David Spiegelhalter, Cambridge’s own Professor of Risk to Ben Goldacre of ‘Bad Science’ fame to Mary Beard of the TLS and ‘It’s a Don’s Life’ blog and Bob Watson from University of East Anglia, itself at the centre of a recent row over climate change science.

Of particular interest to readers of BBC History Magazine may be Mary Beard’s lecture on Risk, the ancient world and the study of humanities (available as podcast and video online – see the link above). In it, Mary argues that the Romans had a very different attitude to danger and risk than our risk-sensitive, risk-avoiding, risk-measuring 21st century culture.

From gaming boards, to dice throwing, to consultations of oracles (I helped Mary reconstruct the first consultation of the Oracles of Astrampsychus for hundreds of years during the course of the lecture), Mary argues that the ancients had a thing or two to teach us about facing up to uncertainties in life. In addition, Mary argues that universities and research funding bodies could do well to remember the Roman example when defining the ever-proliferating risk threat matrices that now dominate teaching and researching in the humanities. 

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Reprinted from Neos Kosmos www.neoskosmos.com