So, you’re from the future?

As part of my Global Challenges module, I ask students how they would convince someone they were from the year 2013 if (you can be as elaborate with the SF scenarios as you like here) they were transported back a couple of thousand years to ancient Rome. I invoke Terminator Rules so they cannot take any artifacts or technology with them.

One of the reasons I found Pinker’s recent time traveling thought experiment so amusing is because most people are hopeless at coming up with an explanation that doesn’t require existing knowledge or not be so beyond local knowledge as to be meaningless. OK, so you’re going to tell them about computers? Can you explain von Neuman architecture, a Turing machine or just a logic gate? The Earth is round and orbits the Sun. Can you prove that? How could they understand your explanations and proofs?

The total sum of human knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. It’s impossible to cram more knowledge into our brains over the course of a single lifetime. So each new generation is knowing much less about what is collectively known. Back in 1978 James Burke pointed out during the absolutely superb Connections series that everyday technology such as lifts were sufficiently complex as to be beyond the average person’s understanding. If I say that to someone in 2013 the typical response is ‘Duh!¬† Of course. Are you a bit simple?’. We take it for granted that much of what goes on is, if not magical, then deeply mysterious. In principle we could find out how it worked. But in principle we could eat less and do more exercise.

After we spend half an hour brainstorming I flip things around and show them this sketch from Mitchell and Webb (the Italian subtitles are a bonus).


Knowledge is a product of its times. Take too large a leap and you risk being judged not a genius but a lunatic. When I (very regularly) receive rejection letters I try to remember Neitzsche’s observation that “the higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.” Uhu, so you’re a genius are you? Can you prove that? Well, if I had a time machine…


Friedrich Nietzsche. Nineteenth century philosopher, philologist and hipster.


Science communication – the gold standard

I recently discovered Armstrong & Miller. And like any neophyte I’m a bit evangelical about them.

Anyhoo, there is so much that is very good about this sketch. I shan’t ruin it by trundling through my appreciation. Only to say it sums up perfectly the collision between the barbarism of specialization and edutainment.

Tell me more about ‘the interwebs’

In what is fast becoming an infamous defense of science, Steven Pinker at one point muses about what the great thinkers (or scientists as Pinker classifies them) such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith would benefit from a Tardis facilitated visit from a current day scientist, such as Pinker himself.

When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?

Alas, I fear this would be the depressing result.

Revisiting Global Challenges

I am currently in the process of updating the Global Challenges syllabus and assessment. Nothing too drastic, but I would like to make a number of changes for the new academic year. The biggest change is that there will no longer be an exam. While the exam turned out very well – there was a good spread of grades with some students getting excellent marks – I want to embed the assessments further into the course with time and space for reflection on feedback. That would be possible with a series of in-class tests (something that can work very well, for example see Living with Environmental Change) but instead I will use more assessed group work.

I am also currently experimenting with lecture recording and flip teaching. Lectures will be recorded and watched online before classes that will concentrate on discussions of the lecture material and allocated reading. This has worked very well for Sustainability in the Local and Global Environment. This also gives me the opportunity to try and get some guest lecturers that slipped through my clutches last year as we can in principle record anytime. And anything that could help reduce my stress levels as I do battle with the diaries of eight very busy academics is to be welcomed. Once recorded I can schedule a lecture anytime.