The Value of Ideas
It is widely recognised that Durham's reputation as an international research led university is enhanced by the pioneering work of our high-profile research institutes, in addition to the University's outstanding departments and individual scholars. These prestigious centres of excellence utilise world-class academic expertise to lead thinking on a range of major issues, from the origins of the universe to public health and wellbeing, understanding global hazards and risks to biomedical sciences and stem cells. But it is Durham's distinctive IAS (Institute of Advanced Study) which, for many, provides a more inclusive point of access to understand the value and importance of Durham's most innovative and exciting contributions to world ideas. Michael Lavery caught up with Durham Professors and IAS Directors Ash Amin and Michael O'Neill to look at the role of the IAS in positioning Durham at the forefront of public and academic debate on the value of ideas ......
LAUNCHED in 2006 (and featured in Durham First Issue 21 Winter 2006/07), Durham's IAS has an ambitious vision - to explore and unpick the world's biggest issues with a distinctive, multi-disciplinary approach - uniquely, covering both the Arts and Sciences - and to provide an intellectually stimulating platform to challenge conventional thought and policies.
Annual programmes on major themes such as the Legacy of Charles Darwin, Modelling, and Being Human, delivered through public lectures and creative, multi-disciplinary workshops, have proven to engage, inspire and illuminate many university members, alumni, scholars and Durham's partners in the private and public sector, bringing people into the IAS and Durham's vibrant community. The recruitment of the world's leading scholars as IAS fellows, and regular national media coverage have further enhanced the profile of an Institute which is proving to play an increasingly important role in Durham's strategy to maintain its position as one of the world's leading research-led institutions.
The next challenge for the IAS is to demonstrate not only the real value of academic research and debate but more generally, the important role of universities in shaping the way we live and work and supporting the development of society, industry and economy. The answer may soon be found on the shelves of your nearest bookshop as the IAS garners Durham's research stars and most gifted writers to delve into the world of big ideas and mainstream, consumer publishing.
Released in Spring 2009 by Profile Books, Thinking About Almost Everything is a book which takes inspiration for its title from one of our most famous members - honorary graduate and University Chancellor, Bill Bryson - whose book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything' won the Aventis Prize for science literature in 2006. Whilst the IAS's book shares Bill's playful and impassioned approach to critical subject matter, this illustrated paperback is about far more than just Science.
This book presents original thinking about a remarkable range of timely and relevant phenomena, past and present. Can ideas really explain, and intervene in, the world around us from urbanism to terrorism, poetry to pornography, the housing market to how we think and feel? This book, and its collection of concise, pithy and ultimately challenging short texts from Durham staff, aims to do just that, nurturing new thought on ‘real issues'.
The essays are written by Durham's scientists, literary scholars, historians, musicologists, geographers, philosophers, archaeologists, anthropologists, and others, each using different traditions and tools of the trade, and different methods of work.
The vision of the IAS and of this book is that ideas provide a vantage point. They help get past the clutter and noise to seeing the big picture and sometimes glimpsing the future. The ideas in Thinking About Almost Everything, are laden with such potential, forcing new belief, for example, in the power of art to improve health, science to extend life or sight, religion to temper extremism, feeling and irrationality to drive reason. The book however is centrally concerned to invite critical and creative scrutiny of known and less well-known ideas in a quest to Light up Minds, as the subtitle of the book proposes, by bridging specialist and public knowledge with absolute clarity.
Whether these ideas become known or influential is another matter. Again, only too frequently, they circulate in closed circles among specialists talking to each other, or when they are made public they come in narrow, indigestible, esoteric, trivialising, or authoritarian form.
The IAS, and this book, are quite different; communicating authoritative work on a spectrum of significant matters in a lively, open and accessible manner.
The essays and indeed many of the public facing outputs of the IAS aim not to instruct, but rather to catalyse further thought and interest. In doing so, our hope is to show that universities can play a central role in shaping public opinion in a thinking society.
Public Events & Lectures: www.durham.ac.uk/whatson
Prestigious IAS fellows 2006 – onwards: www.durham.ac.uk/ias/fellows
Thinking About Almost Everything is published by Profile Books in Spring 2009.
For more information on how to order a copy at a specially-discounted price for Durham alumni please visit the IAS website: www.durham.ac.uk/ias