Previous Science Talks

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19 March 2020 CANCELLED
Regenerative Neurology – the Future
Presented by Professor Siddharthan Chandran, MacDonald Professor of Neurology and Director of Edinburgh Neuroscience at The University of Edinburgh
Disorders of the ageing brain are a major public health threat. Our brains are the most complex organ we have – the last area of human discovery – which explains why in over 40 years we’ve failed to find cures for neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, MS and motor neurone disease. Now disruptive technologies including stem cell creation are offering opportunities to accelerate the discovery of new medicines and we are on the cusp of a revolution for regenerative neurology.

16 April 2020 CANCELLED
The Challenges of Detecting Gravitational Waves
Presented by Dr Daniel Williams, Institute for Gravitational Research, University of Glasgow

21 May 2020 CANCELLED
Artificial Intelligence: Past, Present and Future
Presented by Professor Michael Rovatsos, Professor of Artificial Intelligence, School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh. Also Member of Centre for Intelligent Systems and their Applications, Director of Bayes Centre and Liaison Director of Alan Turing Institute.

18 June 2020 CANCELLED
Probing the Dark Side of the Universe with Weak Gravitational Lensing
Presented by Ben Giblin, Research Cosmologist at Royal Observatory, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Edinburgh

There are no group meetings in July and August.
Past Talks

19 September 2019
The benefits and limitations of employing alternative, non-rodent models to investigate the toxicity of nanomaterials
Presented by Dr Helinor Johnston, Associate Professor of Toxicology, School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Heriot Watt University
Nanomaterials (NMs) are defined as having at least one dimension that is 1-100 nm in diameter. At the nanoscale, novel properties emerge in materials, which has led to an increase in the incorporation of NMs in a diverse array of consumer products. Accordingly, NM exploitation has grown enormously over recent years and the use of NMs now spans diverse sectors (e.g. pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, textiles, food, electronics, automotive, construction, agriculture, and pigments/inks). In 2005 a Nanotechnology Consumer Product Inventory identified 54 products that had incorporated nanotechnology, and by 2014 this had increased to 1814 products. Despite the increased prevalence of NMs in the marketplace, there are still uncertainties surrounding their potential detrimental impact on human health. Toxicology testing has remained relatively unchanged for the last 50 years and has relied on the use of rodents. However, there is a need to reduce the reliance placed on rodent testing in nanotoxicology for ethical, financial and legislative reasons. Furthermore, there is evidence that rodent models do not always predict the human response and that there are problems with their reproducibility. Adoption of alternative, non-rodent models can allow a quicker, more ethical and often cheaper assessment of NM toxicity than using rodents. In vitro (cell based) models of varied complexity and zebrafish (Danio rerio) embryos are being increasingly used to assess the toxicity of NMs, and the benefits and limitations of these models for assessing the response of different systems (e.g. immune system, intestine, skin, lungs) will be discussed.
The presentation from this lecture can be viewed at the link below

17 October 2019
Re-thinking health from the ground up, gut health, the human biome and our soils
Presented by Charlotte Maberly, FoodConnects
“…the food we eat is only as good as the soil from which it springs.” Lady Eve Balfour, 1940
For almost 100 years, dietary discourse in the UK has been dominated by anxious concern regarding the impact of food upon our body shape. We have experienced cyclical vilifications of fat, carbohydrates and sugar in the popular media, but conclusive or even coherent advice on healthy diets has remained elusive. Despite the volume of available information on diet and lifestyle, we are still experiencing unprecedented levels of obesity, heart disease, eating disorders and other dietary related illnesses.
In recent decades, it has been observed that we are perhaps approaching the task of healthy eating from an unhelpful perspective, and that the rise of ‘nutritionism’ (a reductionist, nutrient-focussed approach to diet) needs to be countered with a more holistic approach to food and eating.
Fascinating new research into the human biome supports this notion, and indicates that the bacterial communities in and on our bodies are also intrinsically linked with bacterial life in in our food and surrounding environment. This research looks far beyond nutritional values of individual foodstuffs to the potential significance of how we grow, prepare and eat our food.
In this session, we will explore the key points of understanding that this research has brought to light and how this may inspire significant changes in the way we consider health and diet.

The presentation from this lecture can be viewed at the link below

Further reading:
ENDERS, G. 2015 Gut: the inside story of our body’s most underrated organ.
MONTGOMERY, D & Bikle, A. 2015. The hidden half of nature: the microbial roots of life and health. W. W. Norton & Company.
SPECTOR, T., 2015. The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat. London: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson.
WILSON, B. 2015. First bite: how we learn to eat. Fourth Estate.
LOWENFELDS, J. 2010. Teaming with microbes: the organic gardener’s guide to the soil food web. Timber Press, UK
SCRINIS, G. 2013. Nutritionism: the science and politics of dietary advice. Columbia University Press.
GOLDACRE, B. 2009. Bad science. Harper Perennial.
BLYTHMAN, J. 2015. Swallow this: serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets. Fourth Estate.
YONG, E. 2016. I Contain Multitudes: the microbes within us and a grander view of life. Ecco.

21 November 2019
Beetles, Bones and Bodies: How Forensic Entomology can aid death scene analysis and interpretation
Presented by Clive Warsop, Division of Pathology, University of Edinburgh
Most forensic entomological cases deal with post mortem issues, and the majority of those are seeking to understand and evaluate the minimum post mortem interval (PMI). This is the period between the point where insects have access to a cadaver and the moment the insect specimens were recorded and collected from the forensic context. In addition to PMI evaluation, insects can be effective in other legal circumstances. These include: locating the source of illegal drugs; understanding criminal movements or narrowing the search area for missing people; proving instances of negligence in the care of the very young or the very old and infirm; misapplication of pesticides; health issues relating to the food industry; and legal conservation and environmental issues. This lecture will focus on the use of insects for PMI estimation and the additional ways they can aid interpretation of the forensic context.

5 December 2019 (History of Science Lecture)
Brewster's Kaleidoscopes: Some Novel and Celebratory Investigations with Hands-on Opportunities
Presented by Philip Bradfield, Formerly Lecturer in Physics and Computer Science at the Universities of Edinburgh and Wolverhampton

Sir David Brewster [1781-1868] was an exception scientist (particularly in OPTICS), and an important public figure of his time. Initially trained for the Scottish Ministry, he found he had no temperament for public delivery of sermons. He worked his way up by tutoring and writing articles (many!) for Encyclopaedias.

He was a prolific writer and publicist, pressing the powers that be for more public recognition of and support for science. He played a central part in the early days of the British Association for Science, where he was often pitted against English Anglican political figures. His friendship with Lord Brougham was long-standing : a valuable ally.

He ended up first as Principal of the United Colleges at St Andrews, and finally Principal at Edinburgh. His statue has ended up outside the Chemistry Building at King's Buildings - the Physics Department was then still in town.
We are lucky that his daughter, ( Mrs Gordon) wrote a detailed and wide-ranging biography [1869] of her father:"The Home Life of Sir David Brewster", covering not just his "home/family" life but much of his actual science and zealous activities promoting science in the public realm. More recently, a splendid one-day Symposium was held in Edinburgh [ 1981], elegantly reported in
" 'Martyr of Science': Sir David Brewster 1781-1868 ", [1984] A D Morrison-Low and J R R Christie
published by Royal Scottish Museum Studies ISBN 0 9000733 29 2

Our kaleidoscope story will develop from his experiments exploring the generation of polarized light by reflection - "Brewster's Law" might ring a bell or two. His promotion of his "newly-invented" Kaleidoscope brought him very little financial gain - but I for one am grateful for his many true discoveries in Optics

The paper I wrote for the Brewster Society of America can be accessed :

19 December 2019
Genome engineering and agriculture: current opportunities and challenges
Presented by Professor Helen Sang, Developmental Biology, The Roslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh

Genome engineering technologies for the introduction of novel genes into farmed animals and crops has been available for decades, with some GM crops produced in many countries and in large volumes, but with only one GM animal currently in production for food. The recent development of genome editing technologies, largely using the new tools developed from CRISPR/cas9, enable site-specific, designed genetic changes to be made in animal and plant genomes at high efficiency.

I will describe the development of gene-editing technologies and some exemplar applications, mainly in farmed animals, a major area of research at the Roslin Institute. The current focus of selection of targets for gene editing is on conferring resistance to major diseases, for example avian influenza, phenotypes that are challenging in most traditional selection programmes. Identifying genetic changes that will alter resistance to diseases depends on genomic sequence information, genetic mapping of variants in disease responses, and applying knowledge of the biological systems involved in infection.

The complex issues of existing regulations and policy changes to facilitate introduction of these new technologies, while respecting the concerns of society, need to be disentangled. Examples are being developed that are proof of principal of the great potential of genome editing technologies in farmed animals but it is not yet clear if these will be realised.

16 January 2020
A personal take on the opportunities and challenges of marine power
Presented by Beth Dickens, Director, Quoceant Ltd

My talk will cover the following topics:
• My background
• Why renewable energy (and marine power specifically)
• What is wave and tidal power
• What concepts for each already exist
• What are the benefits? And what’s their potential
• A potted history of my time working for Pelamis Wave Power – what we achieved and what we learnt.
• How the industry has changed in the last 5 years
• Where might it be going next…

20 February 2020
Who was James Webb? And why are we sending his telescope into space?
Presented by Dr George Cleland, U3A Edinburgh, Science Group Member

In this talk we’ll find out a bit about the ‘new’ James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) due for launch next year, but first we’ll find out James Webb was. (“... did more for science than any other government official.”)

We’ll set context by looking at other space telescopes and why we put them up there, rather than on the ground (or in jumbo jets). Then we’ll cover the technology of the JWST, and the mission (including it's not so "stellar" past progress). Finally, we’ll discuss the scientific programme for the JWST (and briefly other upcoming telescopes) and the answers they might provide for, if not life, the universe and everything.
The presentation from this talk which has links to lots of James Webb information can be downloaded from:


Due to illness, the talk by Allan Mathieson sheduled for today: Carbon Capture and Storage has had to be cancelled. It will be re-scheduled for later in the year.


Using Genetics to help Elephant Conservation in Cambodia
Presented by Dr Alex Ball, Wild Genes Laboratory, Edinburgh Zoo

Ten (Quite) Interesting Things about Intelligence
Presented by Professor Ian Deary, Centre for Cognitive Ageing, University of Edinburgh

Prion Diseases, including CJD, BSE & Scrapie
Presented by Dr Neil McKenzie, National CJD Research and Surveillance Unit, University of Edinburgh

Lichens: A Tale of Hidden Diversity Right Under our Noses
Presented by Dr Rebecca Yahr, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

Cold-water Corals -- The Mingulay Reef Complex
Presented by Professor Murray Roberts, Applied Marine Biology, University of Edinburgh

Wobbles, Tilts and Time Lords: Understanding the Climate of the Past
Presented by Professor Kate Darling, Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, and Geography, University of St Andrews

Why do only humans get dementia?
Presented by Professor Frank Gunn-Moore, Biology, University of St Andrews

Fibres from Plants
Presented by Dr Gunnel Birgitta Debenham PhD ARCS

The Global Nitrogen Challenge
Presented by Professor Mark Sutton, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Natural Environment Research Council, and University of Edinburgh

RNA: The Unsung Hero of Life
Presented by Professor Jean Beggs, Wellcome Centre for Cell Biology, University of Edinburgh


Is the Future Really Renewable?
Presented by Professor Jack Ponton, Engineering, University of Edinburgh

Imaging with a Magnet and a Radio: Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI); How it Works, What it Shows, and How Safe it is
Presented by Dr Georgia March, Medical Physics, U3A Member

What's New in Dementia Diagnosis?
Presented by Professor John Starr, Geriatric Medicine, University of Edinburgh

Special Christmas Meeting, with short presentations from 3 Members
Global Warming: some limits to rationality
How strong electric fields affect how plants and animals develop
The German Physikum exam

Zebrafish as a Model for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Injury
Presented by Professor Catherina Becker, Centre for Neuroregeneration, University of Edinburgh

Presented by Professor Sir Adrian Bird, Genetics, University of Edinburgh

A Comparison of Suspension and Cable-stayed Bridges
Presented by Richard Hornby, Specialist Bridge Engineer with Arup

Catching Cosmic Cataclysms: The New Field of Gravitational Wave Astronomy
Presented by Dr Jonathan Gair, School of Mathematics, University of Edinburgh

Supplying Metals that Don’t Cost the Earth
Presented by Professor Peter Tasker, School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh

Lead, where it comes from, how it has been used, and its effects on humans
Presented by Dr Beverly Bergman


Scottish Women of Science
Presented by Catherine Booth

Investigating the Impossible
Presented by Prof Caroline Watt

Pondering Primate Personality
Presented by Dr Alex Weiss

The Antibiotic Crisis
Presented by Dr Clare Taylor

Making our Lives Colourful
Presented by Prof Roger Wardman

Particle Physics
Presented by Prof Franz Muheim

The Ebola Virus
Presented by Prof Dorothy Crawford

Biology and Models
Presented by Dr Patrick Heun

Red Squirrel diseases
Presented by Prof Anna Meredith

Cold Fusion
Presented by Prof Tony Trewavas


Organic Food & Farming
Presented by Prof Tony Trewavas

Development of Human Embryon
Presented by Dr Peter Ramage

Intelligent Robots
Presented by Dr Subramanian Ramamoorthy

Presented by Dr Colin Campbell

Interactive Textiles
Presented by Prof Roger Wardman

Black Holes
Presented by David Nisbet

Ageing & Mental Skills
Presented by Prof Ian Deary

Carbon Capture
Presented by Prof Stuart Haszeldine

Plant Behaviour and Intelligence
Presented by Prof Tony Trewavas

Breast Cancer
Presented by Mr Udi Chetty


Communication for Children with Special Needs
Presented by Dr Helen Pain

Marine Conservation
Presented by Seabird Centre

Synthetic Bio-engineering
Presented by Prof Alistair Elfick

Presented by Prof Sir Geoff Palmer

NHS & Social Services
Presented by Dr Gavin MacColl

Thorium (Nuclear Power)
Presented by Dr Jason Love

Caribbean Invertebrates
Presented by Barbara Richardson

Dark Energy
Presented by Prof Andy Taylor

Li-Fi –

Forensic Science
Presented by Dr Kathy Charles


Wind Turbines
Presented by Prof Tony Trewavas

Genetic Modification
Presented by Dr Ulrich Loening

Presented by Prof Eleanor Campbell

Higgs Boson; What Happens Now?
Presented by Dr Jenni Smillie

Stress Steroids
Presented by Prof Karen Chapman

The Ozone Hole
Presented by Prof Arthur Cracknell

Bee Keeping
Presented by Alan Riach

Environmental Archaeology
Presented by Sharon Carson

Sleep Disorders
Presented by Dr Renata Riha

2012/13 (This year not necessarily correct!)

Mapping Scotland
Presented by Dr C Fleet

Human Genome
Presented by Dr Semple

Wind Turbines
Presented by Dr J Taylor

Working with Precious Metals
Presented by Sheana Stephens

Epstein Barr Virus
Presented by Prof Dorothy Crawford

Smallenberg Virus –

Chile Telescope
Presented by Dr T Johnson

Presented by Dr D Davine

Brain Banking
Presented by Prof J Bell

Quantum Computing
Presented by Prof Kashefi