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Institute of Advanced Study

Activities Archive


The IAS theme for the academic year 2017/18 was Structure. The concept of structure provides ideas about organizational principles and material which sit in useful opposition to notions of dis-organisation, loss of form and potential entropy. It cuts across disciplines with great clarity, enabling consideration of the relationships between material, social, literary, architectural, musical and artistic structures and their – always contingent – capacities to provide certainty and continuity.

How do structures take form in the natural world; how do they evolve over time, and what influences them? How are they actively composed by humans and other species? And what is the relationship between natural and cultural structures? How are structure and function related in biology, architecture and engineering, and what lessons do these disciplinary areas provide for each other about structure-function relationships?

The concept of structure is central to engineering, both in single artefacts (bridges, buildings) and in larger systems of infrastructure. Similarly, in social and cultural terms, there are multiple discourses about structure in art and narrative (with useful debates regarding the relationship between structure and aesthetics), and in thinking about larger artefacts such as big databases. At the extreme ‘other end’ of scale, cosmologists consider the large scale structure of the Universe and the notion of a ‘cosmic web’.


The IAS theme of Structure for academic year 2017/18 addressed issues of major contemporary intellectual interest concerning Structure which is a key organizing concept in many areas of research and scholarship. Languages and narratives, social and biophysical systems, molecules and geological formations are all said to have structure, but what common concepts link these different sorts of structure? What does structure do, physically and conceptually? Can there be anything without structure?

The IAS Annual Programme for 2017/18 included details of the variety of fascinating cross-disciplinary research projects that are being led by Durham academics during the year.

Highlights in the programme included: a three-day international conference exploring conceptualisations of ‘fundamental structures’ across a range of disciplines; a two-day workshop which brough together historians, philosophers and scientists together to discuss the historical development of material science structural theory; a wide ranging programme that considered Victorian interdisciplinarity focusing on the dynamics of interdisciplinary interaction in the formation and promulgation of individual disciplines. A further series of events opened up new debates about the ways in which people in antiquity and the early Middle Ages (AD c.300-c.800) restructured the world around them, or perceived its restructuring to be taking place, at both macro-and micro-levels; a two-day workshop also reflected on the role molecular models have played in scientific practice and the role they play in non-specialist representations of science; a further series of workshops discussed structure and symmetry involving several disciplines including among others: music, molecular biology, zoology, physics, mathematics, law and psychology.

Future of the University: public lecture series

In addition to these activities and others, the IAS co-convened The Future of the University public lecture series. This series was organised in conjunction with University College and speakers included among others Peter Horrocks CBE; Professor Peter Coveney; Professor N. Kate Hayles; and the Rt Hon. the Lord David Willetts. For further details follow this link.