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Institute of Advanced Study

Reflections on Water Public Lecture Series

The Significance in History of a Unique Substance

This series of public lectures brings together eminent scientists, historians, theologians and philosophers, stimulating speakers involved in current research, to shed new light on the nature and cultural significance of a very familiar substance.  There are two main themes intertwined, both of which address subjects from the 18th century up to modern day.

The first theme is the central place of water in science's evolving understanding of matter.  Until the end of the Enlightenment, water was a symbol, and one of the four elements. In the new chemistry of Lavoisier and his associates, it was perceived with astonishment as a compound of two gases. In 1806, analysis of water established that the 'elective affinity' holding compounds together was electrical.  Following prolonged controversy and an international chemical congress, after 1860 water acquired its modern representation as 'H­2O', making our familiar Periodic Table of elements possible.  Water still remains a puzzling and a special compound, and the historical, scientific and philosophical aspects of its use, identity and intellectual relevance are deeply resonant.

The second theme is the role played by water in the project of mastering nature, the crucial role of technology and medicine in European and colonial cultures. Since most of the Earth's surface is covered by water, global navigators needed to know where they were once they ventured out on the oceans.  On land, water played a key role in religious and medical therapies, respectable and alternative, that soothed souls and healed the body.  In the eighteenth century, spas became centres of civility and 'detoxing' for new leisure classes, and mineral waters big business. More vital for public health were supplies of clean water for the booming cities of the industrial revolution, where piped water and drains made London in the 1870s, for example, self-sustaining for the first time in its history. But the nineteenth century bequeathed polluted rivers to the twentieth; and in our day sufficient clean water for everyone remains a distant objective. Reflecting on water will bring us new understanding of where we are and how we got here.

These public lectures are free and open to all.  For further information please contact the lecture series organiser, Professor David Knight (d.m.knight@durham.ac.uk)

Lecture Programme

All lectures will take place in the rooom 202 in the Calman Learning Centre and will start at 5.30pm

4 November 2009

Professor David Knight (Philosophy, Durham University)

11 November 2009

Professor Crosbie Smith (History, University of Kent)

18 November 2009

Professor Hugh Torrens (Geology, University of Keele)

2 December 2009

Professor Hasok Chang (Science  & Technology Studies, University College London)

9 December 2009

Professor John Finney (Physics and Astronomy, University College London)

3 February 2010

Professor Jonathan Lowe (Philosophy, Durham)

10 February 2010

Professor David Brown (Theology, St Andrews University)

17 February 2010

Professor Peter Coates (History, University of Bristol)

24 February 2010

Professor Sir Arnold Wolfendale FRS (Physics, Durham University)

3 March 2010

Dr Roberta Bivins (History of Medicine, University of Warwick)
co-sponsored by the Wellcome Trust

10 March 2010

Dr Matthew Eddy (Philosophy, Durham University)
Image credit: 'History of the Water Module', R. Hayward, reproduced from L. Pauling and R. Hayward, The Architecture of Molecules (San Francisco: W H Freeman and Co., 1964).
History of the Water Molecule’, R. Hayward, reproduced from L. Pauling and R. Hayward, The Architecture of Molecules (San Francisco: W H Freeman and Co., 1964).