Monday, December 15, 2014

Play - Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
15 January - 7 March 2015

1939: fascism spreads across Europe, Franco marches on Barcelona and two German chemists discover the processes of atomic fission. In Berkeley, California, theoretical physicists recognise the horrendous potential of this new science: a weapon that draws its power from the very building blocks of the universe. The ambitious and charismatic J Robert Oppenheimer finds himself uniquely placed to spearhead the largest scientific undertaking in all of human history.

Struggling to cast off his radical past and thrust into a position of power and authority, Oppenheimer races to win the 'battle of the laboratories' and create a weapon so devastating that, with the detonation of a single device, it would bring about an end not just to the Second World War but to all war.

As the political situation darkens, Tom Morton-Smith's new play takes us into the heart of the Manhattan Project and explores the tension between the scientific advances that will shape our understanding of the fabric of the universe, and the justification of their use during wartime, revealing the personal cost of making history.

Directed by Angus Jackson whose recent credits include King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre and Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Full details here.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Recap - Beyond the Brain

Our final, festive, meeting for Michaelmas 2014 attracted a select group of participants who, fuelled by port and stollen, grappled with tricky questions of consciousness, artificial intelligence, neurology, logic, and ethics. Given Stephen Hawking's comments earlier that day, the singularity was a fitting topic with which to close our series of conversations on the brain. Adrian introduced us to Greg Egan and to the more general current scientific and philosophical arguments about the possibilities for artificial entities of increasingly superior intelligence. This is, he revealed, a serious and relevant academic debate, but one in which fiction and philosophy can play a particularly important role. Simon then contributed a typically imaginative presentation of Chalmers' ideas, augmented with charming illustrations (see above). The following discussion took in everything from economic modelling to brain upgrades ('Ambition 2.0'), new forms of evolution, the independent life of mathematical equations, and the molecular mechanism of Star Trek transportation systems.

Overall, it has been a fantastic term of meetings - my thanks to everyone who had participated, and particularly to those who prepared introductions to the readings. We have covered an enormous range of time, genre, and topics, as we have tried to get inside the heads of peoples past, present, and future.

CRASSH conference - The Total Archive

'The Total Archive: Dreams of Universal Knowledge from the Encyclopaedia to Big Data'

CRASSH, Cambridge, 19 March 2015 - 20 March 2015 

The complete system of knowledge is a standard trope of science fiction, a techno-utopian dream and an aesthetic ideal. It is Solomon’s House, the Encyclopaedia and the Museum. It is also an ideology – of Enlightenment, High Modernism and absolute governance.

Far from ending the dream of a total archive, twentieth-century positivist rationality brought it ever closer. From Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum to Mass-Observation, from the Unity of Science movement to Isaac Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica, from the Whole Earth Catalog to Wikipedia, the dream of universal knowledge dies hard. These projects triumphantly burst their own bounds, generating more archival material, more information, than can ever be processed. When it encounters well defined areas – the sportsfield or the model organism – the total archive tracks every movement of every player, of recording every gene and mutation. Increasingly this approach is inverted: databases are linked; quantities are demanded where only qualities existed before. The Human Genome Project is the most famous, but now there are countless databases demanding ever more varied input. Here the question of what is excluded becomes central.

The total archive is a political tool. It encompasses population statistics, GDP, indices of the Standard of Living and the international ideology of UNESCO, the WHO, the free market and, most recently, Big Data. The information-gathering practices of statecraft are the total archive par excellence, carrying the potential to transfer power into the open fields of economics and law – or divest it into the hands of criminals, researchers and activists.

Questions of the total archive they engage key issues in the philosophy of classification, the poetics of the universal, the ideology of surveillance and the technologies of information retrieval. What are the social structures and political dynamics required to sustain total archives, and what are the temporalities implied by  such projects?

In order to confront the ideology and increasing reality of interconnected data-sets and communication technologies we need a robust conceptual framework – one that does not sacrifice historical nuance for the ability to speculate. This conference brings together scholars from a wide range of fields to discuss the aesthetics and political reality of the total archive.
Full details here.

Conversations on Nature - report

A report by Matthew Wale on the recent 'Conversations on Nature' event in Leicester.

The Oxonian Review - Literature and Science

The special issue of The Oxonian Review on Literature and Science has been published - see the articles here. The issue includes a discussion by Reading Group attendee Alice Bamford on 'Proofs and Catastrophes'.