Village Hall Talks at Wootton-By-Woodstock

The project was conceived to raise funds to renovate the village hall in Wootton-by-Woodstock, which was built almost entirely from timber over eighty years ago. Few who have attended the talks would disagree that the evenings have been an engaging mixture of serious insight and comedic observation and we think we are catering for the current thirst for live events in smaller venues.

The Wootton TED-Style Talk

The Wootton TED-Style Talk
(Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global set of conferences under the slogan "ideas worth spreading". Speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can. Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and many Nobel prizewinners.

TED was founded in 1984 as a one-off event and its annual conference began in 1990, in Monterey, California. TED events are now held throughout the U.S. and in Europe and Asia, offering live streaming of the talks.

They address a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture - and there are over 1,000 talks on the TED website. For the first Wootton TED-style evening, three eminent speakers presented magisterial talks and delighted a packed hall with their ability to condense huge and complex subjects into just 18 minutes.

LEN SEYMOUR (Pictured Left Above) lives in Wootton and is Professor of Gene Therapies at Oxford University and Director of Pharmacology within the Department of Oncology. In his talk - called Genes & Gene Therapy – what can we expect? - Len told us the essential feature of DNA is not its double helical structure - rather it is the sequence of "bases" displayed along it. There are four possible bases, and their sequence is "translated" in groups of three, by the cellular machinery, to encode all the proteins in the body.

Each building block of protein (an amino acid) is encoded by a specific ‘"triplet" code of three bases - however, simple errors in the DNA can have disastrous consequences for protein structure, he said. The human genome contains about 23,000 genes, and we now know that mutations in about 4,000 of them can cause observable diseases – known as "single gene disorders". In recent years, scientists have been successfully supplementing the cells of patients with mutated genes, providing healthy copies that can effectively treat the single gene disorders. Len told us there has been great success with Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID, ‘bubble boy disease’), adrenoleukodystrophy (‘Lorenzo’s Oil’), haemophilia and some forms of congenital blindness. Gene supplementation is now established as an effective medicine for several diseases.

Cancer is also a genetic disease, although most of the gene mutations are acquired in the lifetime of the individual and are not inherited, added Len. Because cancer cells contain dozens of mutations, it is hard to treat the disease by gene-supplementation approaches. Therefore, scientists are now exploiting similarities between cancer cells and virus-infected normal cells, to identify aspects of virus activity that are not needed in cancer cells. In this way, said Len, it is possible to produce viruses that recognise and kill cancer cells directly, but are not dangerous to normal cells. Len added that he and his colleagues are developing this approach in Oxford and they are very optimistic about possible therapeutic benefits

BRUCE LEVELL (Pictured Right Above) worked for Shell Oil for 34 years until his retirement last year, filling several senior executive positions, including chief geologist - and he is now Visiting Professor of Earth Sciences at Oxford University.Through a series of charts and graphs. Bruce showed that the global energy system is both huge and complex. It controls the flow of 520 exajoules of energy from concentrated sources to the various services we all use - and matches supply and demand of the amount of energy and the type of energy on a range of time-scales from years to seconds.

This is achieved in the face of a rapid rise in human population (in his lifetime alone, Bruce told us this had risen from 2.7 to 7 billion people), in addition to development and urbanisation - and the consequent changes in demand. Crucially, Bruce added that the supply of energy will soon need to service up to 9 billion people - but at considerably lower levels of carbon emissions.

Analysis of past data suggests, with a surprising consistency, that new energy technologies grow at about a factor of 10 in market share in a decade and take 20-30 years to reach just one per cent of primary energy use. Despite investment levels that have increased nearly fifty-fold over 15 years to $300 billion, and are now close to 50 per cent of those in the oil and gas exploration and production industry, Bruce pointed out that renewable energies are still growing at this rate - towards a collective 20-25 exajoules.

Therefore, like it or not, fossil fuels will be needed during the remaining decades of the growth period of renewables. He added that a combination of maximising prior investment, future system integration costs, and simply energy per tonne of emitted carbon all argue for gas as opposed to coal during this period. While shale gas may in the end not suit the UK, or even Europe, Bruce suggested that jeopardising its use as a global energy source through indulgence in an end-justifies-the-means style of debate runs the risk of favouring the default option - which is the increased use of cheap coal.

CONRAD WOLFRAM lives in Wootton and is a physicist, mathematician and technologist, as well as strategic director and European co-founder and CEO of the Wolfram Group of companies. He is one of the world's leading advocates for a fundamental shift of maths education to be computer-based, arguing that this is the only way to solve the global maths education crisis.

Conrad.suggested that learning by rote is not the answer; instead, unlocking the creative power of problem-solving is the way to enthuse schoolchildren. Recently, the newspapers have been full of stories of British children lagging behind Asian countries in maths tests, but Conrad said that the problem is not the difference between Britain and Shanghai – but the worldwide difference between maths in education and maths in the real world. Everywhere, Conrad claimed, we are teaching largely the wrong maths. In the real world, he said, we use computers for calculating, almost universally; in education we use people for calculating - almost universally. This growing chasm, he claimed, is a key reason why maths is so despised in education and yet so powerful and important in real life. We have confused rigour at hand-calculating with rigour for the wider problem-solving subject of maths.

At its heart, Conrad said, maths is the world's most successful system of problem solving. The point is to take real things we want to work out and then apply maths to get the answer. The central change in real-world maths over the past 50 years is that we automated a lot out of calculating and computers now do a much better job than people – even well-trained ones – in almost all cases.

In school, most of us learn the formula for solving a quadratic equation, but not a cubic. Conrad suggested we must seriously question why we are spending years of our students' lives failing to be able to compute what his phone could accomplish in seconds. Instead, they should be grappling with real problems and applying maths to them. Defining questions and abstracting them to maths are crucial steps that Britain's (and other countries') schools spend woefully little time on, because students laboriously practise obsolete hand calculating skills. "What a waste of human endeavour when the world's population is spending 20,000 student lifetimes a year learning hand-calculating," he said..

Instead of rote learning long-division procedures, Conrad said, we should get get students applying the power of calculus, picking holes in government statistics, designing a traffic system or cracking secret codes. All are possible, all train both creativity and conceptual understanding and have practical results - but they need computers to do most of the calculating – just like we do in the real world.

Estonia is the first country to use the computer-based maths education system. School students will be working on problems such as "Am I normal?", "Are girls better at maths?" "Will it rain tomorrow?" and "Should I insure my laptop?" They will be using real, large datasets with all the difficulties that entails. They'll be doing coding and some of the maths they will be handling is traditionally taught only at university. Where Estonia leads, others will follow – not just in the process of learning but in the subject matter, he added. Even better, Conrad believes British culture makes us rather good creative problem-solvers, potentially world-beating if successfully tethered to the power of computer-based maths.

"What an amazing evening - three brilliant minds coming together in Wootton Village Hall to condense years or research into just 18 minutes each and yet never losing the basic force of their themes. All three talks were totally different in subject-matter and yet the speakers shared that rare ability of putting across complex ideas in an accessible and engaging way. Thank you for providing such stimulating and captivating entertainment - Ian Fazey, Banbury

Ross King

Friday May 2nd 2014

Ross is a Canadian novelist and author of several non-fiction best-sellers, including Brunelleschi's Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence, which describes how the Italian architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, designed what remains the largest masonry dome ever built - that of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, completed in 1436. This masterpiece, visible for miles around, will be the subject of Ross's talk in Wootton.

Even in an age of towering skyscrapers and vast sports stadiums, the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore still retains a rare power to astonish - yet the elegance of the building masks the tremendous labour, technical ingenuity and bitter personal strife involved in its creation. For over a century after work on the cathedral began in 1296, the proposed dome was regarded as impossible to build because of its enormous size, but the greatest architectural puzzle of its age was finally completed in 1436 and the dome was hailed as one of the great wonders of the world and it has gone down in history as a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.

In his book, Ross tells the extraordinary story of how the cupola was raised and of the dome's architect, the brilliant and volatile Brunelleschi - who was denounced as a madman at the start of the project, but celebrated as a genius by the end. His life was one of ambition, ingenuity, rivalry and intrigue - a human drama set against the plagues, wars, political feuds and intellectual ferments of Renaissance Florence, the glorious era for which the dome remains the most compelling symbol.

Brunelleschi’s Dome was on the bestseller lists of the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle, and received several awards including the Book Sense Non-fiction Book of the Year. It was also voted Non-Fiction Book of the Year by American Independent Booksellers.

Ross followed Brunelleschi's Dome with Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, which follows the four arduous years during which Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel amid the political and religious intrigues of early 16th Century Rome.

In a later work, called The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism , Ross contrasted the works and lives of the French painters Ernest Meissonier and Edouard Manet and - to great critical acclaim - chronicled the dramatic transition by which Impressionist artists changed the vision of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. In Canada in 2006, Ross received the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction for this book - an award also given to him in 2012 for his work, Leonardo and the Last Supper, his examination of da Vinci's iconic 15th Century religious mural.

Ross lectures regularly in Europe and North America and has also given guided tours of Rome, Florence, Milan and Paris. He lives in Woodstock with his wife, Melanie.

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Hugh Pym

Saturday May 31st 2014 (Please Note Different Day From Usual)

Hugh is the BBC's chief economics correspondent and often appears on the nation's television screens, explaining complex financial affairs.

He has now written the first inside account of the UK banking crisis, which tells the story of what really happened behind closed doors, involving key players in Downing Street and the City. The book is due to be published in late May - just before Hugh gives his talk in Wootton.

Hugh is one of only a handful of broadcast correspondents to have covered the financial crisis from its origins in 2007 to the present day. His book includes interviews with previously unpublished sources and provides the most detailed insight so far into the crisis.

Before joining BBC Television, Hugh had worked for ITN for 12 years and also Sky Television. His two previous books were called What Happened? And Other Questions About the Credit Crunch and a study of Gordon Brown's first year in office as Chancellor of the Exchequer, both co-written with Nick Kochan.

In the 2011 General Election, Hugh stood as the Liberal Democrat candidate in the North Wiltshire constituency.

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Richard Van Emden

Friday June 27th 2014

Richard is one of the world's leading historians of the First World War and has written fifteen books on the conflict, as well as working on a dozen related television documentaries.

During his career, Richard has interviewed over 270 veterans of the Great War and his many books include Boy Soldiers of the Great War, The Trench and The Last Fighting Tommy. His television programmes on the First World War include Britain’s Last Tommies, Britain’s Boy Soldiers, the award-winning Roses of No Man’s Land and War Horse - The Real Story.

Much of Richard's talk in Wootton will focus on the boy soldiers, but he will also discuss his latest book, called Tommy's War, which is published in June to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of war in July 1914. It shows the conflict in remarkable close-up from August 1914 to November 1918, drawing on over 150 previously unseen private photographs and soldiers' first-hand accounts. It recreates the experience of the Western Front, as never before, through the words and images of soldiers on the ground.

The majority of the photographs were taken on privately-owned cameras, often tiny Vest Pocket Kodaks. They include Lieutenant Robin Skeggs’s snapshots of the famous Christmas Truce, Second Lieutenant Arthur Heath’s final heart-breaking letter home to his mother from the Channel Port, and Lieutenant Ronald Poulton Palmer’s (heir to the Hunter and Palmer biscuit fortune and England Rugby captain) description to his parents of the French springtime.

The material that Richard has gathered is some of the very best first-hand accounts written about the First War, some of it published at the time and forgotten, some of it previously unpublished - but all wonderfully descriptive and immediate, and often wickedly funny. Tommy humour, frequently very dark, played a vital part in men’s mental survival, particularly in times of great stress. Until now its critical role in victory has been overlooked and Richard restores the balance, giving weight to the soldiers’ natural inclination to laugh during their darkest moments.

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Harry Bucknall

Friday July 18th 2014

Harry is a travel writer and former Army officer who, two years ago completed a 1,400-mile trip on foot between St Paul's Cathedral, in London, and St Peter’s Basilica, in Rome.. Harry is not particularly religious but admits to “spiritual wanderings” and embarked on the journey as an adventure.

He has now written about his epic walk in his latest book, called Like A Tramp, Like A Pilgrim, which is due to be published the day before Harry appears in Wootton.

Harry decided to embark on the journey because he felt that many writers had written about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, but far fewer have described the pilgrimage to Rome, which is not only longer but much harder.

During the trek, which lasted for 94 days, Harry endured temperatures of 40C and completed an average of 15-20 milks a day, setting out at 5.30am to avoid the hottest part of the day. He set off in May and his route took him through northern France, Switzerland, and over the Apennine Mountains in Italy. He often walked with friendly strangers all along the way, including a group of young Polish priests making their own pilgrimage. “But what was incredible was the human kindness you met along the way.”

This latest book follows the success of his previous work, called In the Dolphin’s Wake, which he wrote after serving in the Coldstream Guards for 12 years, spending time in Bosnia and finishing as a major. In it, he traced his journey across the Ionian and Aegean Seas, in Greece, covering over 6,000 miles and visiting 36 islands.

The book won widespread acclaim, including praise from Sir Patrick Fermor, the late master of travel writing. Again, it ventured into the realm of spirituality, giving a detailed account of life with the monks in Patmos - where St John the Divine received the Book of Revelations – and also featuring descriptions of monastic obedience on Mount Athos, where all mirrors had been removed because the monks told him that they found beauty only in God, not themselves.

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Mark Avery

Friday September 19th 2014

Mark is one of the country’s leading conservationists and worked as the RSPB’s charismatic Director of Conservation for 13 years. He has been at the heart of all major conservation battles of recent years – from wind-farms to the persecution of birds of prey by landowners.

Mark’s new book, called A Message from Martha, traces the extinction of the North American passenger pigeon, with September 1st marking the centenary of the death of the last surviving bird, called Martha, in 1914. The extinction is truly shocking because the passenger pigeon went from being one of the most prolific species in the world to extinction through hunting and habitat destruction – all within 50 years.

The bird had lived in vast migratory flocks, with one in 1866 in southern Ontario once estimated to be one mile wide and 300 miles long, taking 14 hours to pass, and holding in excess of 3.5 billion birds. And this figure would probably represent only a fraction of the entire population at the time.

Estimates suggest there were up to five billion passenger pigeons in North America when Europeans first arrived. A large reduction in numbers occurred through deforestation and also when pigeon meat was commercialized as a cheap food for both slaves and the poor of the 19th Century – resulting in hunting on an almost mechanized scale.

A slow decline between 1800 and 1870 was followed by a catastrophic decline between 1870 and 1890 – and Martha was the world's last passenger pigeon when she died on September 1, 1914, at Cincinnati Zoo.

Mark’s last book, called Fighting for Birds - 25 Years in Nature Conservation, won widespread acclaim and it is seen as the Bible for saving wildlife, with Bill Oddie claiming it was required reading by anybody interested in conservation. British Wildlife magazine said the book showed how every conservation battle had been a fight every inch of the way, whilst Countryfile magazine described Mark as a “troublemaker – but in a nice way”.

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David Hone

Friday October 24th 2014 (Sixth Birthday Evening)

David has an international reputation as a palaeontologist specialising in dinosaurs and pterosaurs. He broadcasts widely and teaches a range of courses at Queen Mary’s College, London, focusing on evolution, ecology, vertebrate diversity and global change biology.

He has also written a number of scientific papers, naming a number of new dinosaurs. These include Zhuchengtyrannus magnus– a Tyrannosaurus-sized carnivore from China; Limusaurus inextricabilis Anchiornis huxleyi - a bird-like feathered dinosaur close to the origin of birds; and Linhenykus monodactylus - a small bird-like dinosaur with just one finger on each hand.

David also has a blog on palaeontology (hosted by The Guardian) called “Lost Worlds” and he has also been writing the blog “Archosaur Musings” for over five years, where he talks about dinosaurs, pterosaurs and science in the media.

He also helped launch a new site focused on pterosaurs – “Pterosaur.Net” which has it’s own blog, as well as a series of essays on various aspects of the biology of these animals. However his biggest project is called “Ask A Biologist” which he set up in 2006, when he recruited a number of international researchers to answer the public’s questions and, so far, they have replied to nearly 7,000 biology-related queries. He is also currently writing a book on dinosaurs for the Sigma series of science titles for the Bloomsbury Press.

David has also written for the National Geographic magazine and the BBC Walking with Dinosaurs website. He has appeared on many television networks, including the Discovery Channel, commenting on dinosaur stories, He has also appeared on television in China, where he lived for three years whilst carrying out research.

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Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Friday November 21st 2014

Lucy is a cultural historian and author of The Pike, the smash-hit biography of the debauched Italian poet, daredevil and fascist Gabriele D’Annuzio, which won universal and unequivocal praise from reviewers and was garlanded with awards.

Last year, the book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and it was also given the 2013 Costa Book Award for biography, the Duff Cooper Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the Paddy Power Political biography of the Year. The Pike recounts how, in September 1919, D’Annunzio, a successful poet and occasional politician, declared himself Commandante of the city of Fiume in modern-day Croatia.

His intention was to establish a utopia based on his fascist and artistic ideals - and it proved the dramatic pinnacle to an outrageous career. D’Annunzio became a national hero and his evolution from idealist romantic to radical right-wing revolutionary is seen as a political parable. His ideological journey, culminating in the failure of the Fiume project, reflects the political turbulence of early 20th-century Europe and the emergence of fascism.

In The Pike, Lucy addresses the cult of nationalism and the origins of political extremism – and at the centre of the book stands the charismatic D’Annunzio - a figure as deplorable as he is fascinating.


Sunday Times - Hughes-Hallett has a great talent for encapsulating an era or an attitude …The fact that almost 700 pages flew by bears testimony to how pleasurable and readable those pages were.

Francis Wheen, Daily Mail - This is a magnificent portrait of a preposterous character … D’Annunzio was deplorable, brilliant, ludicrous, tragic but above all irresistible, as hundreds of women could testify. His biographer has done him full justice.

Daily Telegraph - Hughes-Hallett chooses not to judge, taking the position that disapproval is not an interesting response. Instead she teases apart the man from his self-made myth… She is never seduced by her subject, repeatedly reminding us of his fundamental lack of empathy, something elegantly encapsulated by the cover image itself: D’Annunzio mirrored, frozen in self-admiration.

Lucy is also the author of Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions, which won both the Fawcett Prize and the Emily Toth Award. She also wrote the highly-praised Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen. Lucy has written book reviews for all the major newspapers, in particular The Sunday Times. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

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John Lloyd & John Mitchinson Talk, Summer 2009

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