The Burlington House lecture 2019: Unwrapping the secrets of our past - a molecular journey through history

11 December 2019 18:00-21:30, London, United Kingdom

This is a free event with free refreshments and canapés

From the study of the stars to archaeological discoveries, the universe is littered with clues about where we came from, how humans evolved, and how society developed.
In a special evening hosted by the learned societies of the Burlington House courtyard, we discover how researchers from a range of disciplines are working to unwrap these clues.
In our first lecture, Dr Helen Fraser explores the breadth of cosmic evolution, from the origins of the elements to the birth of planets. In the second, Professor Richard Evershed takes us on a journey through the history of prehistoric dairy farming – looking at what archaeological pottery can show us about evolving human digestion. In the final lecture, Professor Andrew Beeby charts the story of societal change through the study of inks in manuscripts, dating back to the 5th century.
Lecture descriptions:

The cosmic chemical cauldron
Dr Helen Fraser

By the time Mendeleev arranged the known elements into his periodic table 150 years ago, many of these same elements had also been "found" in space, and one element in particular, helium, was discovered in space before it was identified on Earth. In fact we now know that all the naturally occurring elements in the Universe are generated by nuclear processes in stars, and the cyclic journey of these elements and their chemistries as star formation, evolution and rebirth occurs is a crucial tool in modern astronomy for understanding star and planet formation.

In this cosmic journey we will explore the cold dark regions of space between the stars, known as interstellar space, which happen to be packed full of molecules. By combining state-of-the-art observations from space and ground-based telescopes with unique laboratory experiments, astrochemists are uncovering the molecular universe around us – from dying stars to new star-forming regions and planets, and eventually, possibly, to the emergence of life itself.

Chemical fingerprints of prehistoric food and farming
Professor Richard Evershed

The percentage of adults that can digest lactose varies strikingly around the world, with lactose intolerance being widespread outside of Europe. But how did prehistoric European populations develop a tolerance for lactose? The field of analytical chemistry could provide the answer.

Substances such as milk leave a chemical ‘fingerprint’, which can be detected on archaeological artefacts such as ceramic pots. By studying these chemical fingerprints we can chart the development of dairy farming from its beginnings.  Along the way we can reach a greater understanding of culture, economy and technology in early populations.

Molecular medieval manuscripts
Professor Andy Beeby

Brightly illuminated medieval manuscripts tell a story – of people, culture and society. But it is only recently that scientists have developed robust methods for unravelling these stories – using non-contact, non-damaging analysis to study the paints, inks and other materials used.

Team Pigment is a group of scientists, historians and conservation staff who have developed portable instruments to enable the systematic study of historical manuscripts. Working together, they have examined books and documents from across the country, dating back to the 5th century, mapping the changes in materials being used and helping place these into the context of societal change.
Professor Richard Evershed, University of Bristol, United Kingdom

Professor Evershed’s research is founded on his life-long fascination with the natural world and recognition early in his academic career of the potential of linking chromatography to mass spectrometry to unravel the complex mixtures of compounds that exist in the environment. He has tirelessly promoted the idea of using molecular level information to understand the nature and functioning of ecosystems in the past and present. He has published widely in archaeological chemistry, soil and aquatic biogeochemistry, chemical ecology, biomolecular palaeontology and palaeoclimatology. He gained his personal Chair in Biogeochemistry in 2000 and was Elected Fellow of the Royal Society 2010. He has won several awards including: The RSC’s Theophilus Redwood, Interdisciplinary and Robert Boyle Awards, and the Aston Medal from the British Mass Spectrometry Society. He recently published a popular science book entitled “Sorting the Beef from the Bull: the Forensic Science of Food Fraud”.

Professor Andy Beeby, University of Durham, United Kingdom

Professor Andy Beeby is a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Durham.  His research interests lie in applications of molecular photophysics and spectroscopy, and research highlights include the study of photoactivated materials used in photomedicine, organic and organometallic luminescent compounds used as molecular probes and conjugated compounds as prototypical molecular conductors.   Over the past 7 years he has turned his attention to the use of optical spectroscopy and imaging to identify materials in historic objects and books.  He was a founding member of ‘Team-Pigment’, a group of scientists, historians and conservation scientists that has gone on to study over 300 manuscripts in some 20 libraries across the UK and Ireland.

Dr Helen Fraser, The Open University, United Kingdom

Dr Helen Fraser currently leads the Astrochemistry group at the Open Unviersity, where her group's research focuses on understanding the role of ice in star and planet formation. By combining observational astronomy with laboratory experiments and theroetical calculations, Helen and her coworkers are unravalling the importance of solid-state chemistry in the interstellar medium. Helen began her career at the Unviersity of Manchester receiving a 1st-class joint honours degree in chemistry and physics, before undertaking a PhD at the Unviersity of Cambridge, where she focused on studying the sub-mm gas-phase spectroscopy of transient species, likely to impact global warming or Ozone hole depletion. Seeing that there was little appetite at that time for funding such "irrelevant" research! she switched her focus to Astronomy. Via Nottingham Berkley and Leiden Observatory, Helen built her knowledge of Astrochemistry. She returned to the UK in 2005 to take up a permanent post at the Unviersity of Strathclyde, and moved to her current role at the Open Unviersity in 2012. She has also held visiting Professorship positions in Stockholm, Marsellie and Paris.
Along the way Helen has played a very active role in subject groups at the RSC and IoP, and served on the RAS Council. She has undertaken a number of committee roles with the STFC UKSA and is currently the president of the IAU (International Astronomical Union) Commission on Laboratory Astrophysics. She has a passion for communicating science to children (and their parents) and ensuring scientific literacy is raised amongst the population at large, and led a Royal Society Summer Exhibtion called "Stars R Us" in 2006. Outside of academic life, Helen is a single mum, swims, sings in a choirs, reads in her village book group, and has been rather surprised to discover that along with wearing glasses, enjoying gardening is a natrual hobby which evolves with middle age

Royal Academy of Arts

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BA, United Kingdom

Organised by
Geological Society
Linnean Society
Royal Academy of Arts
Royal Astronomical Society
Royal Society of Chemistry
Society of Antiquaries of London

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