The Midlands Group holds regular monthly meetings and events. These meetings generally take the form of talks held at the University, social outings such as lunch at the College of Food or visits to local sites or joint meetings with the Aston Graduates. We are always ready to welcome new members and also to welcome alumni who are visiting Birmingham.
Talks are usually held in Lecture Room 3 at 7.30 pm on the first floor of the Arts Building at the University unless otherwise stated. Cars should enter by the East Gate near the Students Union. Press the button on the box at the entrance barrier and when Security replies, say “Alumni meeting”. Parking should be easy in the evenings.
Chairman: Brian McDonald
Vice Chairman: Steven Gregory
Treasurer: Lesley Payne
Committee members: Celia Adams, Robin Edwards, Rex Harris, Arthur Lee, Nina Waddell, Peter Borcherds.
Norma Broadbridge (alumni President ex officio)
Forthcoming Events 2015
Thursday 16th April 2015 at 7:30 pm: Dr John Carmen, Senior Lecturer in Heritage Valuation at Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage will present a talk on "Bloody meadows: the significance of Battlefield Archaeology in the study of conflict."
The return of war to Europe in the 1990s saw a simultaneous interest among archaeologists in the study of past conflict. While pre-historians re-examined the evidence for iolence among our distant ancestors, others began to investigate the material evidence on historic battlefields, and others yet turned their attention to the remains of the global conflicts of the last century. Conflict Archaeology has since risen to become a specialist field in its own right, with its own conference series, its own journal and specialised ethodologies. The talk will review the rise of this Conflict Archaeology and the particular contribution it makes and can make to understanding the darker side of what it is to be uman.
Wednesday 13th May 2015 at 7:30 pm: there will be a Bio-Science talk by Steve Busby entitled "The wonderful world of bacteria", which will highlight their developing resistance to antibiotics.
Friday 12th June 2015 at 7:30 pm there will be a joint meeting with the Aston Grads at Aston in BK Suite (G11) followed by a buffet supper. The speaker will be Brian Davies and he will talk about his long association with the project to raise the Mary Rose.
Saturday 11th July at 12:30 we are organising a tour of the Hook Norton Brewery in the Cotswolds.
Tuesday 10th March 2015: Alan Woollhead presented an illustrated talk on beekeeping. Bees are a large and diverse group of insects that are key to the pollination of many commercial crops, but it is the honeybee that has evolved the ability to overwinter as a colony thus requiring a store of food to do so. For thousands of years humans have taken advantage of this characteristic and have subsequently developed ways to keep colonies of bees to harvest the excess honey stored. The talk explored the evolution of the honeybee, the development of modern beekeeping and the way humans make use of the products of the bees' labours. Alan Woollhead also explored how modern honeybees are subject to a multitude of pests and diseases and the effect that these have on a colony of honeybees.
Wednesday 11th February 2015: The Group held a lunch meeting at the UCB College of Food in central Birmingham.
Tuesday 11th November 2014: Martin Killeen, rare books librarian in the Special Collections department at the University gave a talk ntitled ‘On the Suburban Front; patriotism and protest in Birmingham, 1914-1918’. The subject was the local impact of the war and overed such topics as: the form of munitions factories, hospital care of the wounded, mixed with this elements of anti-war dissent.
Thursday 11th December 2014: at our end of year festive event Emeritus Professor Colin Gough, for many years Leader of the University String Quartet and also a Professor of Physics, has agreed to give us a talk, with demonstrations, about violins.
Wednesday 8th October 2014: AGM followed by a dinner to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Midland Branch. The after-dinner speaker was Professor Jack Cohen, a successful reproductive biologist who worked in the Department of Zoology and Comparative Physiology here at Birmingham for thirty years. He went on to become a well-known author of science fiction, co-writing four books with Terry Pratchett and, as a consultant, helps other authors to create credible aliens, alien ecosystems and alternative worlds. Now semi-retired, he remains a science fiction enthusiast and continues to collect and study strange animals.
Wednesday 14th May 2014: Pieta Greaves, Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Coordinator for Birmingham Museums Trust, gave a talk entitled ‘Medieval to Post Modern - Materials Matter’. Pieta is one of the six conservators working at the various sites operated by the Trust, and also at the Museum’s Collection Centre which holds some twenty million objects – not the least of the team’s tasks being to evaluate the likely impact of the new HS2 rail link which will be passing within yards of the building at Duddeston. Other difficulties arise due to the action of insects, air pollutants, over exposure to light, exposure to the corrosive agents in human fingerprints – all to some degree the perhaps unavoidable consequences of the passage of time, and of having artefacts, each vulnerable to some degree, in contact with people; people who in some cases it seems, are still engaging in that most pernicious of habits: the careless disposal of chewing gum!
Having outlined the methods used to combat the threats to object survival, Pieta went on to discuss perhaps the most remarkable incidence of object survival to come to light in recent years, the Staffordshire Hoard. This group of objects, largely made of finely worked gold decorated with garnets, was found by a metal detectorist in a field near Lichfield in 2009. Dating from the Saxon Period, around 650 AD, the total find would fit comfortably into a carrier bag, yet the prestigious nature of the material, certainly of the elite section of Saxon society if not royalty, is such that it has become one of the top ten exhibits in the world, attracting some 40,000 visitors in two weeks at Birmingham Museum.
With a series of detailed images of a selection of the pieces, Pieta discussed the conservation of the Hoard and some of the questions currently guiding the continuing programme of research into the likely origins and uses of the material. More information and photographs of the Staffordshire Hoard may be found on the web at: http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/
Thursday 17th April 2014: Dr Kenny Webster, Informal Learning Manager, Birmingham Museums Trust, gave a talk entitled ‘Thinktank - The role of science museums in modern society’. In the 12 years that Thinktank has been open, it has moved from being a modern replacement for the 'old science museum' to a place of discovery for children, tp what it now hopes will be a cultural and learning based attraction that engages a broad diversity of visitors.
Kenny described the journey that Thinktank has taken, from a scientist's perspective, and discussed the future of the science museum in the context of a city that is home to a number of high profile universities that also have public engagement within their collective visions. These universities, particularly the University of Birmingham, have provided a wide variety of experts who have given their time, on a voluntary basis, to assist in projects with both organized groups of young people and casual visitors at Thinktank.
A perhaps more unusual activity is the Cafe Scientifique programme: a series of informal events held to engage a diverse audience in contemporary science issues that take place in local bars, cafes and pubs. These sessions take place on the first Tuesday of every month, often in the The Jekyll and Hyde public house in Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham. Find out more at:
Tuesday 18th March 2014: Nicola Kalinski, Director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham, gave a talk entitled: ‘The Barber Institute – past, present .. and future??’. Nicola began by giving a short biographical account of Sir Henry Barber, a Birmingham born man who, having initially trained as a solicitor, achieved considerable financial success in his property dealings in Birmingham and subsequently became a patron of the University of Birmingham during its early years with the endowment of a Chair in Law.
Upon his death in 1927 Sir Henry left his estate to his wife, Lady Martha (Hattie) Barber, with a letter asking that she promote their schemes to further endow the University. In December 1932 a deed of foundation was drawn up providing the University with £100,000 in shares in the property company, with the residue of the estate falling to the University upon her death, which occurred shortly afterwards in 1933. The deeds stipulated that a building be constructed centered on a chamber for music, and that collections be acquired – consisting of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and textiles (not ceramics!) – which should each predate 1900 and be of the standard required by the National Gallery. The bequest also provided for the foundation of the Barber Professor of Art and two professors of Law.
The Barber Institute was subsequently built at its present location, then a green-field site, and opened by Queen Mary. The collection, begun by the first director of the Institute, Professor Thomas Bodkin, has since become one of the finest in the country and is still growing. In 1967 the Trustees changed the terms of the deeds to permit more recent works to be acquired, while maintaining a thirty year minimum age and standards of quality: one of the more recent acquisitions being a Magritte surrealist work, oil on canvass from 1948, entitled ‘the Flavour of Tears’.
Now in its 80th year, the Barber Institute is a public museum with a turnover of around £1,000,000 per annum and visitor numbers each year in the region of 60,000 – surprisingly few of whom appear to be University students! With renovations planned which should integrate the building into the new layout of the University as the new sports centre and library develop, perhaps student interaction may increase.
Thursday 12th December 2013: saw the welcome return of Gary Bayliss who once again enthralled the audience with a virtuoso performance on guitar. Drawing largely on his own compositions Gary expressed degrees of emotion through music with the light and shade of dancing melodies and haunting riffs. The programme was interspersed with recognizable pieces from the more commercially popular genres of jazz and musical theatre. To add to the experience there was an array of festive drinks and snacks. Good music, wine, and mince pies!
Tuesday 12th November 2013: Professor Susan Hunston gave an informative and entertaining talk entitled 'Discoveries, Estimates and Arguments: How Language Makes Science' in which she explained that while it used to be thought that scientific writing was objective and impersonal we now know that scientists evaluate their work as they write about it, and that they use evaluative language when they write and speak to the general public. Professor Hunston went on to explain the various language strategies used by scientists to persuade us that their views are correct, and also persuade policy-makers to continue to fund research. She also demonstrated – using evidence from the 'Bank of English' corpus, from a former Great Read at Birmingham book, and from the BBC 'Today' programme – how linguistic research uses new technologies to investigate naturally-occurring language, and how discourse analysis and corpus linguistics come together to explore the language of science.
The ideology of the scientific world presents the notion that it is not human thoughts but facts which drive research. However, there is always a human interpretation behind conclusions drawn. It is the scientists exercising their brains on the evidence which results in the advancement of knowledge; and it is by careful selection of words in the presentation of their arguments that authors tend to influence the minds of their audience to gain support for their hypothesis. From the examples given it became apparent that such nuanced use of language is commonplace in the presentation of scientific reports and, rather than deliver clear empirical data, authors frequently use language which sounds both authoritative and objective in the attempt to persuade their audience that they have ‘got it right’.
The talk gave rise to much debate as to whether some scientific reporting may be akin to political rhetoric: pronouncements with some element of ‘spin’. The suggestion was also posited that such ploys may result from the need for justification of research within competitive commercial environments. Whatever the answers to such questions may be it certainly appears that – as many of us may already suspect – what scientists report may not always be as ‘scientific’ as it could be.
Wednesday 9th October 2013: The first talk of the Autumn 2013 Season was given by Dr Peter and Mrs Jean Rookes and it provided a fascinating insight into one of the more remote areas of the world. The talk, entitled ‘Mountains, rivers and rain forests – our 8 years of working in Papua New Guinea’, described some of the trials and rewards of long years of missionary work in a land consisting of over 600 islands, many of which are without metalled roads, modern systems of communication, or what we usually consider to be the basic necessities for sanitation and the general upkeep of our health.
Additional difficulties arose from the nature of the population. The population is still mostly tribal with small groups living in remote and isolated communities and, with relatively little integration of the population as a whole, tribal warfare remains prevalent. It is also remarkable that in a relatively small population of some 6 million people 50% are under the age of 18 years, and more than 800 separate languages are spoken.
For much of their time in the islands the Rookes were primarily concerned with the provision of basic health requirements, particularly in relation to childbirth. This aspect of life continues to rate highly in the mortality statistics in one of the few parts of the world where males tend to outlive females: although life expectancy in general is only around 56 years of age. The work rarely seems to have been easy with travel always difficult even in dry conditions, and often impossible following tropical rains. Life was made harder by extremes of climate. The country is predominantly rain forest with temperatures frequently in the 35-40 °C range – although sub-zero temperatures are not unknown in the higher mountain ranges.
Despite the apparent hardships, living on the local diet of fish, vegetables, and very little meat – perhaps the occasional flying fox – the Rookes returned to England in a remarkably fit and healthy condition, and with some amusing anecdotes. Not least of these was the tale of the visiting doctor who, on making use of the somewhat primitive toilet facilities consisting of a wooden shack at the end of a rickety pier leading out over the river, concluded business by dropping through the hole in the floor himself. Something to talk about when he gets home!
Thursday 16th May 2013: The Society was pleased to welcome guests from the West Midland’s Branch of the Society of Biology for a presentation by Jon Frampton, Professor of Stem Cell Biology at the University’s School of Immunity and Infection.
Professor Frampton, who has been working on stem cells for some 25 years, began his talk with an introduction to the various types of stem cell, their manufacture, and their potential effects on the body: both good and bad. It seems that stem cells, defined as a cell which can both make an exact copy of itself and have the potential to produce the functional cells of one or more organs, can both prolong life and become a factor in cancerous diseases. On the positive side, it was good to hear that the innovative research being conducted at the University is resulting in the development of methods by which stem cells may be used to reverse the adverse affects of both disease and injury in a variety of ways; not least in the areas of macular degeneration – a condition which can result in the loss of vision, especially in advancing years – and in the repair of damage caused by diseases of the liver such as cirrhosis; an area in which Birmingham is leading the way in medical science.
A number of procedures are presently undergoing clinical trials and it is expected that these treatments will be available in the present decade. However, before rushing off to find ‘the cure,’ a note of caution. There are already very attractive stem-cell treatments offered by clinics all over the world for a variety of afflictions and many examples are advertised on the internet; however, the efficacy of some procedures is questionable. While they are likely be very attractively presented, and certainly costly, they may be ineffective. Beware!
Thursday 18th April 2013: Visit to the Cadbury Research Library: Formerly located on the Fourth Floor of the Main Library, the Special Collections and Archives of the University of Birmingham are now housed in the Cadbury Research Library on the Lower Ground Floor of Muirhead Tower and is open to staff, students, alumni, and visitors; all of whom are actively encouraged to visit the library and take advantage of the vast range of material available for research or for personal interest. The collection consists of more than 200,000 rare books, the earliest dating to 1471, and around 3 million manuscripts and tablets written as early as 2,500 BC. The collections also contain, photographs and archive material; including the University’s own archives extending back to the early days when, as Mason College, the institution was based in the city centre.
Our members were grateful to the Director of the Special Collections, Susan Worrall, and University Archivist, Helen Fisher, for a most engaging and stimulating tour of the Library. The volume of material available for study is too great to list here, therefore I would encourage everyone to spend a little time looking through the sections of the Library’s web pages at: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/cadbury/index.aspx and perhaps take advantage of the many and varied services available.
Also, if you would like to add a little of your own personal experience of the University of Birmingham to the archives, contact the Library staff who are currently engaged in an oral history project to record individual perspectives for future researchers. [Chairman]
Thursday 14th March 2013:A talk by Professor Goronwy Tudor Jones entitled 'Joseph Priestley - The Greatest Brummie?': Professor Jones introduced his subject as his personal hero, worthy, he said, of four Nobel rizes and a candidate for the most prestigious professorships in a number of subjects. Born near Batley into a Dissenting family he was denied the possibility of attending Oxford or Cambridge and was educated firstly at Daventry and later at Warrington Dissenting Academy, becoming a Dissenting preacher and theologian. His interest in science was an aspect of his religious belief; he was investigating God's wonders of creation in its materials.
Priestly is well known to share with Lavoisier the credit for the recognition of the element oxygen but has not been generally credited with several other seminal contributions. He was the first to identify the inverse square law of electrostatics, but it is known as Coulomb's Law. He was the first to show that burning hydrogen in oxygen produces water and that the ratio was two of hydrogen to one of oxygen. He first exploded the mixture in a demonstration to the Lunar Society, of which he was a member, and on observing the force of the reaction, Erasmus Darwin suggested that it could be used to power rockets. Priestley laid the foundation for the fortune of J J Schweppe by showing that dissolving 'fixed air' – carbon dioxide – in water made an effervescent drink. He also laid the groundwork for understanding the interdependence of plants and animals by putting a mint leaf in a closed glass vessel filled with carbon dioxide. The leaf flourished and the vessel was found to be full of oxygen. This did not work in the winter, leading Jan Ingenhousz to repeat Priestley's experiments and recognise the contribution of light. Ingenhousz is recognised as the discoverer of photosynthesis.
Priestley's original religious affiliation was as an Arian, accepting the divinity of Jesus but not the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, but in 1774 he supported Theophilus Lindsey in the establishment of Unitarianism. In discussion Professor Jones noted that many notable scientists are, or were Unitarians.
The talk included two demonstrations; the re-ignition of a glowing spill when immersed in oxygen, and the very impressive explosion when a spark is applied to a hydrogen-oxygen mixture. The audience - a very satisfactory number of our members and their friends -were most appreciative.
Thursday 13th December 2012: The final meeting of 2012 enjoyed a programme of guitar music performed by Gary Bayliss. Gary covered a wide repertoire ranging from classical to jazz, starting with two pieces that were featured in the sound track of the film Black Orpheus. These were offered with a tribute to Baden Powell de Aquino, an outstanding Brazilian guitarist with a scouting father. Other leading guitarists informing Gary's repertoire were Pat Metheny and Django Reinhardt; the latter's Nuages was the penultimate piece played. The programme finished with Spanish Guitar Blues, written by Charlie Bird for John Williams; following which Gary discussed his music with members of the audience.
Thursday 10th October 2012: Talk by Professor Vince Gaffney, Chair of Landscape Archaeology at the University of Birmingham: The programme of events for 2012-2013 began with a brief guide to a land inaccessible to most of us, and likely to remain so. Professor Vince Gaffney explained how, with the help of 3D seismic data acquired during petrochemical exploration and advanced computer technology, he and his colleagues have been able to peel back the layers of sediment to reveal ancient terrains beneath vast areas of the North Sea. In his talk, Mapping the landscape under the North Sea: the Rediscovery of Doggerland, Vince explained how his interest in the project began with his finding an old book in the library in which Sir Clement Reid had suggested the possibility of future investigation of the submerged forests around the coastline; an idea given credibility by the occasional recovery of ancient artefacts contained in moorlog (peat) deposits dredged from the sea bed by fishing trawlers. While such finds suggested human activity dating as far back as the Mesolithic Period, it was long believed that the site of the deposits was little more than a land-bridge once connecting the British Isles to mainland Europe. However, following initial research into seismic data covering an area of some 6,000 square kilometers of the Southern North Sea a vast landscape was discovered; not so much a land-bridge but a country, a hinterland of ‘prime real-estate for Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.’
The initial successes of the project resulted in further seismic data being made available, thereby extending the coverage of the project to some 43,000 square kilometers and covering regions as far north as the southern coasts of Norway. Within this landscape, with terrain which can be variously dated from the Neolithic to the Paleolithic of around 18,000 years ago, the traces of some 1,500 kilometers of ancient stream and river beds, lakes, major estuaries, salt marshes, ridges, and valleys became visible with remarkable clarity.
The University has become a centre of expertise in the remote sensing techniques developed during this project; advancements which have attracted much interest for their possible application in many other coastal regions of the world. The information retrieved is not only of interest for students of ancient history but for study relating to future land loss due to rising sea levels resulting from global warming. With this in mind Vince closed his talk with a map projecting the landscape of the British Isles after the melting of the ice caps – vast areas of the present UK will be inundated but, fortunately for us, Birmingham will survive!
In a full and varied programme for the past session each event has been attended by between 20 and 45 members and guests.
We started with the retiring Guild President, Professor Biddlestone, entertaining members who attended the AGM in October with tales of his wide ranging travels to advise on environnmental sustainability. In November we were privileged to learn about Professor Vince Gaffney's newest discoveries at Stonehenge a few days before they hit the press. The interest in his talk was such that he will again be a speaker in our next programme, when he will tell us about Doggerland, the remains of a community now drowned under the North Sea.
Following the social events in December and in February, when the usual College of Food lunch was even better attended than previously, there have been four talks of sustained excellence. In March, Dr. John Craggs, current President of the Guild, shared his enthusiasm for the American Civil War with stories of the Generals involved.
In the May talk, chosen as appropriate to the year of the Olympic Games, Dr Martin Strangwood, describing the effect of material selection on sporting performance, surprised members by revealing that a majority of Britain's successes are in sports which depend significantly on technology. In these Britain leads the world. This presentation was so good that Dr Strangwood will again be giving a talk at the Guild of Gradutes AGM.
Our final talk was by Brian Gambles, Director of the Birmingham Library, and Project Director for the new building. It was his presentation that encouraged us to include a preview of the New Library in the 2012-13 programme. Brian is shown on the left with your chairman and Celia Adams, a member of our committee, in front of the library building in progress.
The final event of the session was a visit to Bletchley Park. Thirty six members and friends eventually turned up on a rare glorious day. Fortunately the heat did not make the day too tiring because the tour was arranged extremely well, with good rest periods for morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea. We discovered much that the books on the code breakers gloss over and were, of course, massively impressed to witness the Colossus machine operating at a speed that matches most modern computers, not bad for the first one ever. A group of 1966 German graduates, Angela Shuttes, Delia Sheasby, Mary Hale, Ann Beaumont and Jane Quinn joined the party for a mini reunion and are shown here.