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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

‘Lights In The Sky: the search for meaning’

24th June 2014, 19:30 to 22:00, Chartered Accountants’ Hall, ICAEW, One Moorgate Place, London, EC2R 6EA, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Dr Serafina Cuomo, Professor Bob Latyon, Professor David Wilkinson


We are delighted to invite you to the Institute of Advanced Study’s next London event, Lights In The Sky: the search for meaning’, on 24 June 2014 at the ICAEW, Chartered Accountants’ Hall, One Moorgate Place.

The event will feature a panel of leading thinkers to explore and discuss a range of perspectives regarding what ‘lights in the sky’ mean in diverse historical, cultural and intellectual contexts.

  • Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (FRS), renowned astrophysicist and former President of the Royal Astronomical Society
  • Dr Serafina Cuomo, classicist and historian whose work focusses on Greek and Roman antiquity
  • Professor Bob Layton, anthropologist interested in social change and social evolution, indigenous rights and non-western art.
  • Professor David Wilkinson (FRAS), professor of theology at Durham University

This evening event will build on the success of our previous London events, for example last year’s successful Timed Out: evolving to extinction with Jonathon Porritt, Caspar Henderson, Gillian Beer, Simon Conway Morris and Paul Wignall.

Organised by Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study, these events offer the Friends of the IAS and the wider Durham alumni network an opportunity to come together for what should prove to be a stimulating and entertaining occasion.

Date: Tuesday 24 June 2014
Time: 7.30pm – 10.00pm
Venue: Chartered Accountants’ Hall, One Moorgate Place, EC2R 6EA
Format: Drinks and nibbles will be available from 7.00pm before the event starts at 7.30pm. This will be followed by a drinks reception at the end to enable guests to mingle and chat with the speakers.
Cost: Free

Spaces are limited and will be awarded on a first come, first served basis. If you would like to attend this event please register using this online booking form. Once registered a confirmation email will be issued and this will act as your ticket. Alternatively you can register via email by contacting enquiries.ias@durham.ac.uk


Additional Information

Human societies, however diverse, share one sky. Over millennia and in all parts of the world they have gazed with wonder up at the sky and observed, recorded and tried to explain celestial events: eclipses, comets and supernovae or, closer to home, phenomena such as rainbows or the aurora. Ancient Babylonian records continue to inform contemporary astronomical investigations. Stars have been seen as deities; as signs of other worlds; and as clues to the origins of the Universe and life itself. Humankind continues to be intrigued by the possibility of Earth-like planets elsewhere, other forms of life, and the potential for communication with these.

Our shared fascination with the sky also extends across the disciplinary spectrum. What happens when we bring together a range of perspectives to consider what ‘lights in the sky’ mean in diverse historical, cultural and intellectual contexts? How do such different points of view inform and potentially transform each other?To answer these questions, Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study will bring together, for a public discussion, a group of distinguished scholars whose research reaches upwards and outwards. The panel will explore topics such as pulsars and gamma ray bursts, the ‘lighthouses’ of outer space; early societies’ interpretations of stars and rainbows; classical visions of astrology and celestial pathways to other dimensions; religious metaphors employing notions of illumination; transitions from astrology to astronomy; and contemporary ideas about extra-terrestrial life and its place in the modern imagination. 

In accord with the IAS’s commitment to interdisciplinarity, the panel will be composed of speakers from the natural and social sciences, and from the arts and humanities. Inviting input from the audience, the panel will consider a variety of questions, including:

  • How do lights in the sky illuminate understandings of the origins of the Universe; the life cycle of stars, and implications of the fact that ‘we are stardust’.
  • In different historical and cultural contexts, how have societies have interpreted stars, comets, rainbows, the aurorae etc.?
  • Does light’s capacity to illuminate the natural world lead, inevitably, to its centrality in notions of moral and intellectual enlightenment?
  • Does the meaning of light as a source of life underlie contemporary enthusiasms for new mythologies about extra-terrestrial life?
  • How do we detect and interpret signals from outer space? And should we be sending signals back?

The Panel

The panel will be composed of the following participants:

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars as a radio astronomy graduate student at Cambridge University, opening up a new branch of astrophysics - work recognised by the award of a Nobel Prize to her supervisor. She has subsequently worked in many roles in diverse branches of astronomy, while raising a family. Now much in demand as a speaker and broadcaster, in her spare time she gardens, listens to choral music, collects poetry with space or astronomy themes, and is active in the Quakers.

Professor David Wilkinson is Principal of St John’s College and also Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. He has two Durham PhDs, one in theoretical astrophysics, where he worked on star formation, the chemical evolution of galaxies and terrestrial mass extinctions, and one in Systematic Theology exploring the future of the physical universe. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and an ordained Methodist minister. His recent books include Christian Eschatology and the Physical Universe (T&T Clark) and Science, Religion and SETI (OUP).

Dr Serafina Cuomo teaches ancient history at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published on the history of Greek and Roman mathematics, land-surveying, architecture and catapults, and is currently completing a project on numeracy in the ancient Greek and Roman world. One of her main research questions is how knowledge changes through time, and how science has been used, and misused, in political, economic and social contexts. She enjoys science fiction on TV, especially 'Star Trek' (the first series) and 'Battlestar Galactica', but had a childhood phobia of images of open inter-galactic space.

Professor Robert Layton is Professor of Anthropology at Durham University. He is an anthropologist interested in social change and social evolution, indigenous rights and non-Western art. He is known for his eclectic approach to anthropology and diverse range of interests. He has written extensively about art, archaeology, the evolution of hunter-gatherer society and culture, the co-evolution of genes and culture, social change and anthropological theory. He was the recipient of the Royal Anthropological Institute's Rivers Memorial Medal for a substantive contribution to anthropology in 2003.

The panel will be chaired by IAS Director for Science, Professor Martin Ward. Professor Ward is the Head of the Department of Physics, and also holds the Temple Chevallier Chair of Astronomy. He has previously held positions at Cambridge, Oxford and Leicester. He is an observational astrophysicist whose research interests include black holes and quasars. He was a consultant for the European Space Agency and is involved in the next generation Hubble Telescope project. He is interested in science public outreach, and has been a guest on Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night and Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. 

Contact enquiries.ias@durham.ac.uk for more information about this event.