Big Ideas in Science

What’s the big idea?

Have you ever wondered how quantum mechanics will change the future of technology, how art got its colours, or how our brain helps us navigates the world?

If so, this course – the only one of its kind in the UK – will reveal all by delving into the main discoveries and inventions of all time.

Sample lectures

1. Symmetry - what does it mean and why does it matter? with Nina Snaith

As human beings, we are instinctively drawn to symmetry, perhaps without realising it - in the way we view art, architecture, and people's faces.

In this lecture from the University of Bristol's Big Ideas in Science series, Dr Nina Snaith asks why, and looks to mathematics for the answer.

Setting maths students a series of problems, Dr Snaith helps them to discover why symmetry is not only beautiful but also useful, with applications in technology, engineering, quantum mechanics and more.

2. The invention of colour, with Philip Ball

How did art get its colour? Today, the artist's palette is arguably taken for granted, with more than a rainbow of colours available to the painter. And yet were it not for chemistry and the inventions enabled by the evolution of industry and technology, many of the colours that we know today may not have emerged.

In this lecture, one of a series hosted by the University of Bristol exploring some of the cornerstone ideas across the sciences, writer and Bristol Physics graduate Philip Ball talks about the intersection of art, science and creativity.

He shows how in order to truly understand the history of art, one must appreciate the origins of the artist's palette and the process followed by such greats as Van Gogh and Picasso in creating their masterpieces.

3. The science of climate change, with Professor Paul Valdes

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Climate change is rarely out of the headlines yet there appears to be continued controversy over the science.

In this captivating lecture, Professor Paul Valdes of Bristol’s world-renowned Geographical Sciences department cuts through the popular misconceptions and the media hype and throws open the topic to ask what’s really happening to the planet, and what scientists and policy makers can do about it.

With global temperatures rising and arguably more uncertainty than uncontested facts, Professor Valdes asks, is it a key issue for our times or the biggest science fraud in history?

The balance of evidence supports the premise that climate is changing due to our activities and that there will be substantial changes to our environment in the future.

So the question is whether this change is dangerous and whether there is anything that science can do to help solve our most urgent problems.

4. Ants, bees and brains, with Professor Nigel Franks

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The collective behaviour of social insects may have more to teach us about the perfect social model than we might think.

This thought-provoking and entertaining lecture illustrates the notion of complexity sciences through the lens of biology, showing how social insect colonies are a manifestation of the last great evolutionary transition.

Professor Franks, who has studied social insects for over 30 years, demonstrates how ants and bees can solve problems beyond the scope of their individual members – much as brains are more sophisticated than their individual neurones.

5. Quantum mechanics and the new technological future, with Professor Sandu Popescu and Professor Jeremy O’Brien

If you have trouble viewing this film, please download the file (557MB).

The theory of quantum mechanics has been hotly debated for over 100 years as our best description for the entire physical world.

But the behaviour of small particles is extremely unusual and defies the natural instinct to judge the world of objects based on what is visible to the human eye.

In the first part of this lecture, Professor Popescu, credited with establishing some of the central concepts in quantum information and computation, presents the basic ideas of this paradoxical theory.

Professor O’Brien, Director of Bristol’s Centre for Quantum Photonics and a renowned expert in quantum technology, goes on to explore how we can harness quantum mechanics to realise profoundly new technologies, from a super computer to cleaner energy devices.

About the course

The course consists of a series of lectures, tutorials and discussion groups.

Topics include:

  • How we understand the world
  • Matter
  • Symmetry
  • Complex systems
  • Planet and climate
  • Science and society
  • Evolution

How to apply

Students who wish to register their interest for future lectures should contact their School Office if you would like to study this unit.

The course is open to current 1st and 2nd year undergraduate students at the University of Bristol.

It accounts for 20 credit points.

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