PROFESSOR CAROLYN ROBERTS


Faced with escalating population pressure and new ways of building, architects are designing cities in the skies and under the ocean. If built, these sit alongside older metropolitan areas such as New York, London, Tokyo and Shanghai, where more and more people are squeezing into built-up areas. The era of ‘megacities’ is already with us, and the pace of development is escalating. But how can and will people live in these places, and what are the challenges of ensuring that they have food, water to drink, clean air to breathe, and can dispose of their wastes? Are we facing a utopian or dystopian urban future?


Recent developments in space technology have allowed us to view the Earth in new ways, and to identify human impact on land, atmosphere, oceans and freshwater in astonishing detail. Our planet’s fragility as a life support system is being revealed today in ways that would not have been anticipated a couple of decades ago. The lecture will explore some of the science behind these observations, show a range of the curious and beautiful imagery being generated, and ask questions about the opportunities and risks of this type of environmental surveillance.


A century ago, environmental observations such as rainfall amounts and air temperatures were made mostly by lay observers with interest and time on their hands. Later on, such measurements moved largely into the realms of professionals, but today the role of amateur observers is being revisited. The advent of the web, smart phones and GPS is increasingly allowing citizen observers of wildlife, ecology, air and water quality, and flooding, to enhance understanding of our environment. What opportunities exist for individuals to help to solve some of the most complex problems on Earth? And what motivates people to join an environmental research team?


The bodies of murder victims, whole or in pieces, often end up in rivers or canals. My work as an Expert Witness with UK police forces has applied the principles of hydrology to murder investigations. In these tragic and gruesome settings, environmental science can help to identify where bodies have come from or gone to. Drawing on macabre and fascinating case studies, the lecture will range from particular cases to general principles of tracing bodies, and the application of science in supporting the law. Probably not for those of a nervous disposition, but of guaranteed interest to the curious.
 

PROFESSOR SIR DAVID SPIEGELHALTER


Numbers illuminate the news. But does this lighting give us an accurate picture? Or are our emotions being manipulated by the way the numbers are framed and communicated? Learn how to take apart a news story that contains statistics, and get the inside scoop on number tricks that are played to make a story newsworthy. Professor Spiegelhalter will feature examples of how health risks may be exaggerated in reporting, and how they could be more accurately presented. Learn how to parse numbers in the news so you get decision- and opinion-worthy evidence and information.


Join Professor Spiegelhalter in a look at the increasing problem of exaggerated, flawed, misleading, and unjustified claims in science. It’s not fake news, it’s flawed news, and we’ll examine a phenomenon that could lessen public trust in science. You’ll explore factors that contribute to the situation, including the suboptimal use of statistics, numbers, and scientific evidence, complex statistical applications, bias, and human nature. Learn how to look critically at scientific research claiming to identify reliable information, and learn how to improve your understanding of the risks and consequences of evidence-based decisions you make.


Enmeshed in our visually-oriented world, the ability to understand data visualizations and graphics is very important. Whether you’re absorbing information in science, current events, or recreation, often a complex topic’s story is illustrated with data. Professor Spiegelhalter will discuss historical examples of good and bad visualisations and how to effectively tell a data-based story through visualization. We’ll also learn about how risk and uncertainty can be communicated through graphics. You’ll enhance your ability to judge presented data, which is *the* critical path to absorbing important information about the world around us.


Embrace uncertainty (quantified and qualified, of course) as David Spiegelhalter explains the key elements required for trustworthy, effective output from artificial intelligence systems and algorithms. You’ll learn the basic questions to ask of AI and algorithms. Examine the nuanced question: "Do we need transparency or rather intelligent openness?" in deciding whether the output of AI/algorithms is trustworthy. Take a look under the hood and recognize why AI systems and algorithms should be accessible, intelligible, usable, and assessable. This class offers understandings you can use to evaluate advice you receive in healthcare and elsewhere.
 

PROFESSOR MICHAEL WYSESSION


In terms of natural disasters, all of the worst earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis together fall short in comparison to the worst of the deadly global pandemics. However, it turns out that sudden changes to global climate systems can create the conditions that can trigger a global outbreak of disease. Sudden changes in temperature and precipitation can alter the ability of humans to grow and raise their food. This can lead to famines, mass migrations of people, and warfare, all of which increase the susceptibility to disease. Large volcanic eruptions have the ability to alter regional and global climates rapidly enough to create these conditions, and have led to some of the world’s deadliest pandemics. Professor Wysession will take a tour through some of the strange and curious historical examples.


The course of human history is extremely complex, involving many interwoven factors of society, politics, economics, technology, and personality. However, as professor Wysession will demonstrate, underlying all of this is the constantly changing fabric of geology, fickle in its supply of natural resources and temperamental in its wielding of natural hazards. So much so that the human history of the rise and fall of civilizations and mass migrations of people strongly correlate with the history of geologic changes, particularly to the climate. As the philosopher Will Durant said, “Civilization exists with geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” We are now entering one of these periods again; however, this time it is humans who are driving the geologic changes.


In general, the planetary conditions for humans have been steadily improving over the past 50 years: the percentages of humans suffering from poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, and disease are all decreasing. However, professor Wysession will show how the toll of this on our planet and its life-forms has been extreme, so much that geologists debate whether we have now created our own time epoch (Anthropocene) or era (Anthropozoic). However, at the same time, there is a growing awareness of our human planetary power and ways to control it. Most exciting in this area is the adoption by most US states of a new way of teaching K-12 science, aligned with the new Next Generation Science Standards, that not only makes science fun and exciting to learn, but provides students with an awareness of critical Earth issues, the tools to solve them, and a sense of the hope and empowerment needed to engineer and design solutions.


Although humans face many extreme challenges over the next centuries, where we will get our energy from is not one of them. The earth receives more energy in just over an hour than all humans use in a year. We are in the midst of a remarkable transition from a fossil fuel economy to a solar-based economy. How long and smooth that transition is will depend on many factors: social, political, economic, and technological. However, the long-term outlook for humans is very good, and because of the significantly lower planetary impacts of a solar-based human economy, so is the outlook for the rest of the planet.