Christmas Research Café: from exploding stars to Raquel Welch

Central library 1
Liverpool Central Library

Our Christmas Research Café was held at Liverpool’s newly refurbished Central Library. The session was very well attended and offered the usual interesting mix of speakers.

“Supernovae: the exploding stars” Phil James, Professor of Extragalactic Astrophysics

Phil began the Research Café with a fascinating insight into the world of supernovae – an explosion which marks the end of a star’s life. A supernova may be seen as a bright point of light which appears and fades over a period of weeks or months, during which it can outshine a billion normal stars.  These rare and spectacular events are of fundamental importance to many areas of science because supernovae are responsible for creating most of the chemical elements in the world around us.  The Liverpool Telescope (LT) on La Palma is an important robotic telescope which allows LJMU astronomers to observe supernovae and use methods such as spectroscopy to determine the chemical composition of each explosion and speed of ejected mass.  Studying why and when supernovae occur, as well as their impact on surrounding galaxies enables astronomers to map the formation of the universe.

“Two million year BC: the real story of our early ancestors”  Laura Bishop, Professor of Hominid Palaeoecology

Laura opened her session by dispelling the myth that two million years ago our ancestors looked like Raquel Welch! Laura is part of an international team working in Western Kenya at the unique Kanjera South site, where in 1995 well-preserved animal bones and artefacts were discovered. Using these artefacts the team asked a series of questions about human evolution: how did they live? What were their technological capabilities? What was the environment like? What were the stone tools used for? What did they eat? How did they get food? Using three types of evidence: the geological setting; fossil bones and stone tools, the team were able to establish “the real story”. Our ancestors lived in an environment of grass, fields, hills and streams; made “throw away tools” from stones found in the local environment but also walked, often miles, to collect exotic stones which they transported, made into tools and treated differently to local stone tools. The stone tools were their version of the Swiss Army knife – used for scraping, cutting and butchery. They ate vegetation but also hunted small animals and scavenged parts from larger animals.

“Understanding digital exclusion” Professor Simeon Yates, Director, Institute of Cultural Capital

There is an assumption that in the future everyone will live in a digital world.  Simeon exposed the assumption that everyone has access to technology and this assumption has an impact on significant numbers today. He worked with Sheffield City Council to understand the inclusion and exclusion in some parts of society and the long-term effects.  The current Government are putting Social Services online, making a saving of approximately £1.75 billion, and with the assumption that it improves service provision.  Figures show that 20%, an estimated 5.2 million, of UK households are not online, one-third of the population are low-level internet users and approximately 50% are people in social housing.  Simeon targeted fours groups: OAPs; Tower block residents; Under 25’s and young families in Sheffield; using workshops, they were asked what they wanted to do and this was fed back to the Council. The findings were that many people “just don’t want to” go on the internet and had no intention of getting online access, that people prefer the phone or face to face contact for public services as they usually are asking about multiple issues, and digital services are not designed in this way. In conclusion, digital education is the key, staff need to be trained and we need joined up services.

“Transatlantic transactions: literary conversation in the 1890s” Glenda Norquay, Professor of Scottish Literary Studies

In a complete change of theme Glenda Norquay introduced the audience to the publishing culture of the 1890’s, with the first appearance of the “literary” agent and the introduction of the 1891 International Copyright Act. This was a period of tension and transition. Glenda was asked to edit an edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “St Ives”, an unfinished novel which was completed by Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1899.  At the time Stevenson was under pressure to write a successful novel but had become disengaged with the publishing world. He told two friends, Sidney Colvin and Charles Baxter, that he didn’t want to continue writing; these two friends subsequently became involved in what was to be a shocking moment in publishing history. Colvin becomes responsible for the literary value of the novel – what will go into print, and Baxter for the commercial value – selling it to the highest bidder and not to Stevenson’s previous publisher, Scribner’s, thus breaking the traditions and practices in publishing at the time.  Glenda’s final project will be to look at the publishing cultures and pressures using the letters of Lemuel W. Bangs.

Our next Research Café will be held on 22nd January in I M Marsh – look out for more details coming soon.

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