Monthly Archives: April 2020

New Job & Affiliation!

I am incredibly excited to have joined the University of York’s Department of Sociology as a Research Fellow on their “Narratives of Science and Religion” project in March, to work with Professor Tom McLeish (Physics) and Dr Amanda Rees (Sociology), who are both utterly brilliant.

This is the narrative-based branch of project of the collaborative ECLAS project, based at Durham, London and York, which brings together scientists, science historians, communication scientists, theologians and professional clergy to investigate effective ways to understand and communicate science, asking all “the Big questions”.

In a rather tumultuous start to the post, I have hit the ground running, researching religious narratives in the Covid-19 crisis in, but especially outside religious discourses, in politics and science journalism (wonder why we keep hearing baout the “sacrifice” of health workers, Covid as a “punishment for x”, from which “lessons” must be learned, and all this being a “war” in which various actors are fighting a “virtuous” fight?). I examine what happens when religious language is instrumentalised by politicians and journalists in a medical crisis, why and when they decide they do so, when they have historically done so, and what can be learned from that about the uses and pitfalls of such rhetoric.

To view the effect of such communication not only in a theoretical framework, but to also understand its dynamics in action, I examine this not only in a Science Communication framework, but also through responses to epidemics in the past. The Reverend Charles Kingsley, for instance, harnessed rousing Biblical imagery to communicate the findings of modern population health sciences – but also to hold governments and institutions to account – during the nineteenth-century cholera crises, to draw equally substantial audiences to his “Cholera sermons” at Westminster Abbey, his lectures at Cambridge University or at the Ladies’ Sanitary Association (which went by such attention-grabbing tiles as “The Pharaoh’s Heart” or “The Massacre of the Innocents”).

I am looking forward to draw on my experience with effective science communication in media and museums, and my previous academic work on the role imaginative and fantastic literatures played in digesting, contextualising and communicating new scientific findings, and their practical societal and epistemological implications (Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, and indeed Kinsgley were all critical and unconventional clerics – and science communicators).

Watch this space for upcoming conference and journal papers, as well as some shorter public pieces, which are already in the works (and soon hopefully even more thrilling stuff, when we move on to the environment, AI, genetic engineering – and more)!

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Have I Got News For You about the history of AI!

After a long hiatus from this website, I am going to catch up with it all by posting only some of the things I have been up to recently!

In December I was invited to one of the most fascinating events that I have ever taken part in, on AI and Humour, organised by some of the writers of Have I Got News for You. Contributors ranged from HIGNFY’s own Jimmy Carr, to neuroscientist Sophie Scott, Piotr Mikowski, AI researcher and stand-up Comedian who performs alongside AI, as, well, myself.

I spoke about Lewis Carroll’s early ideas about AI and Comedy – as he saw making someone laugh as a divine gift, the prerequisite was to understand the workings of the soul (the “psyche”, or indeed the mind) – a process that could, he, as a mathematician, believed, fundamentally be understood in mathematical terms, and thus eventually be mechanically reconstructed (he was keen on Babbage’s experiments in doing so, and even visited the man). In the absence of this being a scientific possibility at his time (or, even now) machinated attempts at producing any form of entertainment, literature, on indeed entertaining, comedic literature, were represented in his works, as the object inducing laughter.

Much to my excitement, I not only got to talk to brilliant experts about the history of AI and automata, but also the experts of tomorrow at Canterbury’s Simon Langton School for boys. Upon the kind invitation by Dr Liz Askey, I was honoured to present the Hol Lecture, entitled “The Alice in Wonderland World of Artificial Intelligence”. Much to the intrigue of the present students, for whom the connection of literature and science at first seemed a stretch, I began the lecture with soon-to-be face of the £50 note Alan Turing’s school library record, which indicated he borrowed the collected works of Lewis Carroll, both Alice novels: Wonderland with its confusions of reality and and dream, and Looking-Glass, with its mirror worlds – but notably also the Game of Logic, not once, but three times, before he went on to compose his own “Imitation Game”. In a lively two hour workshop, student began to design the AI projects of tomorrow, from a multidisciplinary perspective of Biology, Linguistics, Philosophy, and of course Computing — a rousing, and intellectually stimulating day of which the students and their teachers kindly provided a lovely write-up, concluding “It was incredible! Two hours was not enough to discover the whole new world of Artificial Intelligence!”.

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