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From seismic symphonies to literary climate activism: the final week’s events at Cambridge Festival

What is education for? How do we move to a more equal society and what are the group dynamics that make us embrace beliefs that we might be uncomfortable with?

These are some of the big questions being tackled in the final week of the Cambridge Festival, which runs until 28th March. It features speakers from George the Poet to the University of Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor and subjects ranging from seismology and heart surgery on dogs to the latest scientific research and writers’ roles as climate activists.

In Geysers to Grooves: the Symphony of Yellowstone’s Seismic Secrets (26 March, Anglia Ruskin University), Dr Domenico Vicinanza, a pioneering expert in data sonification from Anglia Ruskin University, will harness real-time seismographic data collected from the geysers and seismic activity of Yellowstone National Park, one of the most seismically active areas in the United States and convert it into music. What makes this performance truly captivating is the element of unpredictability. Yellowstone’s seismic activity is erratic and volatile, with earthquakes often occurring in ‘swarms’, creating a musical composition that cannot be foreseen. Dr Vicinanza will also be in conversation with Earth scientist Dr Carrie Soderman from the University of Cambridge about new ways of understanding the planet.

In Cambridge Conversations with the The Vice-Chancellor - Professor Debbie Prentice (27 March, Cambridge Union) will see the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge discuss her thoughts on leading Cambridge and her reflections on the similarities and differences between running a University in the UK and in the US.

Professor Prentice will also discuss her life and work, including her journey to Cambridge via Princeton, and highlights of her research in psychology. This will include work on the interactions and relationships within social groups and the concept of ‘pluralistic ignorance’ – where your belief that everybody else is comfortable with a certain behaviour leads you to act like you are comfortable with it too, even though you’re not.

Cambridge Conversations: Beyond the lecture theatre with George the Poet (26 March, Cambridge Union Society) sees the highly acclaimed spoken word poet return to Cambridge for what promises to be a fascinating conversation with Dr Sharath Srinivasan, Department of Politics and International Studies, his former director of studies and the man who interviewed him fro his place at Cambridge. They will discuss education, life lessons and how George incorporates his sociology studies into his award-winning podcasts, spoken word performances and his research on the socio-economic potential of black music. Along the way, they will cover political activism, the meaning of education, demographic change at Cambridge, and more.

George is currently doing a PhD at UCL'S Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose on the socio-economic potential of black music. He said it started as an exploration of innovation in black music and how it can contribute to the way diaspora communities are organised but has become more about politics than he anticipated. “I’ve come full circle,” he commented, referring to his time at Cambridge. George also talks about his own personal development since Cambridge and the evolution of his popular podcast. His recent series is on After Empire and the impact of colonisation. “Education is often about what you think over time,” he notes.

Race and society: Have we made any real progress since Black Lives Matter? (27 March, Cambridge Union Society) explores where we are now, where progress has been made and how much further there is to go with Cambridge sociologist Professor Jason Arday and Dr Claire Hynes from the University of East Anglia. Chaired by Darren Lewis, Assistant editor and columnist at The Mirror. The panel will focus on the achievements of black individuals across all fields – particularly black women. They will explore the conscious reshaping of black identity that is happening, and how black people are finding ingenious ways to take up space and are being unapologetic about the fact that they belong in those spaces. They will also look at how we continue to move forward against a backdrop of cuts to diversity and inclusion budgets. 

Dr Hynes, who is currently  says: “The problem with diversity is that it’s based on the idea that some individuals and groups are ‘different’ and must be brought into the mainstream. In order to move beyond ‘tickboxing’, questions need to be asked about the fairness of systems and structures which treat some people as ‘normal’ and others as alien, and about our colonial legacy.”

The panel discussion Creating a liveable future: positive action to avert climate catastrophe (28 March, St John's College Old Divinity School) will discuss how climate change activism is not just for scientists and focus on the important role writers and artists can play in highlighting its effects and envisioning a more liveable future.

The panel features playwright Steve Waters, Professor of Scriptwriting from the University of East Anglia, whose many plays include Limehouse (2017) and Temple (2015) for the Donmar. He is joined by Ari de Fauconberg, an award-winning researcher and PhD student at Cambridge Judge Business School whose book proposal on climate change social entrepreneurs won the FT’s Bracken Prize. Also on the panel are critically acclaimed novelists, Guinevere Glasfurd, whose second novel, The Year Without Summer, is a story of climate crisis, and Farah Ali, author of The River, The Town and the short-story collection People Want to Live. The event is chaired by Emily Farnworth, the Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement at Hughes Hall, member of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition Advisory Group, a member of the University of Cambridge Sustainability Committee and a Cambridge Zero Fellow.

Professor Waters says: “As a non-scientist, one of the few virtues of the environmental crises more broadly is how they have prompted many writers to get closer to the work of say, conservationists and glaciologists - and it's clear that what our colleagues in those fields know far outstrips what they can convey professionally and even politically. Writers have much more lee-way and also don't have to get it RIGHT in the quite the same way - a scientist's career can be ruined by approximation, but we live in that space; and also we can personalise, dramatise, turn data into story, fabulation and the like - we deal with emotion and scientists are being compelled to strip that out of their work - so negotiating those differences is our task.”

The Festival ends with the FameLab Cambridge Final (28 March, Cambridge Union) which sees the return of the science communication competition to Cambridge. Finalists will talk about their fascinating research in just three minutes with no presentations and limited props.  FameLab was created by Cheltenham Festivals and is the largest, public-facing, science communication competition and training programme in the world. The winner is the speaker who best demonstrates FameLab’s three C’s – Content, Clarity and Charisma.

Other events in the Festival’s final week include:

Animal Heartbeat Live Podcast Event (26 March, St John’s Old Divinity School) will hear from a range of experts on the latest cutting edge techniques in animal heart surgery. The Animal Heartbeat is the only podcast dedicated to veterinary cardiology and has almost 17,000 downloads of the first season to date. Hosts and veterinary cardiology specialists, Jose Novo Matos from the University of Cambridge Queen’s Veterinary School Hospital and Kieran Borgeat, from Eastcott Veterinary Referrals, Swindon will ask if heart surgery in humans and dogs is really so different?

Radio Seances and Spiritualism in BBC Radio Drama 1922-1941 (26 March, Faculty of English) is a talk by Violet Hatch on the theme of hauntings in BBC radio dramas of the interwar period. It will focus on how 20th-century spiritualists endeavoured to couple modern wireless technology with traditional rituals to search for voices of the dead among the airwaves.

Nourishing Mother Cambridge (27 March, St John’s Old Divinity School) will explore the story of the reliefs scattered across Cambridge which depict a 400-year-old university emblem: a woman, naked, with milk pouring from her breasts onto an inscription placed below: ALMA MATER CANTABRIGIA. This is the source of the Americanism, ‘alma mater’. The session begins with a documentary film, made by members of the university, about this story and includes a discussion with the film’s makers.