Darwin Lectures

Isolation is the theme of the 2023 Lecture Series

Person standing on hill and looking out over landscape

Is isolation a good or bad thing? This is one of the questions examined in the 2023 Darwin Lecture Series. A group of academics from various disciplines will examine the concept looking at how isolation affects atoms and molecules, nations, immigration policy, ancient texts and the cosmos.

We caught up with the curators of the Lecture Series, Professor of Metallurgy, Harry Bhadeshia and David Gershlick, from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research.

Q: How did you arrive at the theme for this year’s series?

David: At the time we were just coming out of lockdown so there were a lot of conversations going on in the media and online about isolation and I started to think about this concept of isolation and how it was being portrayed in a negative light. I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative thing and is actually very important in many different fields. And I started thinking it would make a good topic for a Darwin Lecture series as it’s quite broad as a subject.

Q: And we’re not just looking at human isolation are we?

Harry: Yes, let’s look at light for example. Light exerts a force and Philip Jones will use his talk to describe how light can be used to pick up atoms. Philip uses ‘optical tweezers’ which are a way of trapping and holding these particles with a concentrated laser beam. You can use this method to isolate DNA molecules and analyse them. If you want to measure the elastic behaviour of a small molecule, there’s no other way to do it other than through using light. 

Philip Jones using 'optical tweezers'

Philip Jones using 'optical tweezers'

Philip Jones using 'optical tweezers'

David: Or you can use it to measure the force of pulling two molecules apart which are very small. You can work out how much force it takes for them to break. This highlights how isolation is important in biological terms…as a lot of successful biology has been done in a reductive sense, for example, isolating components of cells.

Q: So you’re looking at the mechanisms of an individual cell, but relating it back to the group?

David: Yes, exactly.

Q: There is one lecture which will address human isolation. Tell me about that.

Harry: We felt the topic of asylum seekers should be considered. Australia has a strict policy on asylum seekers, particularly for people who try to arrive into the country by sea. Those seeking to gain entry that way are completely isolated so, for example, two doctors who may examine one patient are not allowed to talk to each other about that person’s condition. Amy (Dr Amy Nethery, Deakin University) has done a lot of research on this, not just looking at those who are detained, but on the sentiments of Australians.

David: It’s a combination of human stories combined with sociological research.

Q: And of course you have some talks from scientists closer to home...although the scientist I'm thinking of travels to the remotest part of the planet!

David: Yes, Professor Dame Jane Francis, the Director of the British Antarctic Survey, who’s a Fellow at this College. She’s going to take a look at Antarctica as the most isolated continent. But she traces the history of the continent through its geology going way back to when we refer to it as Gondwana and when it was much further north and had a more temperate climate.

Harry: Her lecture will consider the climatic changes that have taken place on Antarctica. Much of her research has been looking at a time when the continent was covered by forests and the remnants of those forests which are of course now covered by thick ice. But, as much of the ice is retreating with the effects of climate change so more of those remnants are being discovered in fossils.

Dame Jane Francis

Dame Jane Francis

Dame Jane Francis

David: And Christine van Ruymbeke’s lecture will be thought provoking. It’s on a subject I knew little about, Persian literature and storytelling. It will relate some ancient stories and will consider the isolation of some of the characters in those stories and the myths and riddles enshrined in them. She unpicks these and analyses the underlining meanings of the stories. She makes some very plausible arguments.

Haft Paykar of Nezami. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Collections

Haft Paykar of Nezami. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Collections

Haft Paykar of Nezami. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Collections

Q: It’s great that you bring together science and humanities with this lecture series.

Harry: I would say that the people who come to the lectures don’t really care whether it’s science or humanities. They’re just looking for a good story. Christine is an enchanting speaker. When you sit down to hear her speak, you don’t want to leave! There is this riddle which has been around for a long time which relates to the search for a suitor for the only daughter of the King. She sets formidable obstacles that any suitor has to overcome and finally one succeeds, but nobody understands why because many of the tasks are done in silence…Christine has actually solved this riddle which she’ll illustrate in her talk.

Q: And there’s a case of isolation being actively sought isn’t there?

Harry: Yes, Heonik Kwon will talk about the self-imposed isolation of a country. North Korea is the only communist country which has hereditary rulers. Heonik considers the question of whether North Koreans genuinely think they are living in paradise compared to the rest of the world.

David: Because of the isolation and secrecy of the state of North Korea, we are isolated from it, so he also analyses the communication barrier between us and them.

The Darwin Lecture series starts on Friday 20 January. All lectures are held at the Lady Mitchell Hall and are free to the public.

  • 20th Jan - On escaping or not escaping solitude. Persian tales of turtles and pearls. Christine von Ruymbeke, University of Cambridge
  • 27th Jan - The isolation of asylum seekers: immigration detention in Australia. Amy Nethery, Deakin University
  • 3rd Feb - The closeting of secrets. Adrian Kent, University of Cambridge
  • 10th Feb - Antarctica: isolated continent. Jane Francis, Director, British Antarctic Survey
  • 17th Feb - Isolation and trapping using optical tweezers. Philip Jones, University College London
  • 24th Feb - Are we alone in the Universe. Arik Kershenbaum, University of Cambridge
  • 3rd March - The self-imposed isolation of North Korea. Heonik Kwon, University of Cambridge
  • 10th March - Isolation in International Relations. Amritar Narlikar, University of Hamburg

Published 18th January 2023

With thanks to:
Harry Bhadeshia
David Gershlick

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License