The S.M.A.R.T. lecture series addresses contemporary challenges of science in an interdisciplinary manner and at the interface of science & society. It aims to encourage out-of-the-box-thinking as well as to establish a dialogue with the broader public. The initiative of our young institute is dedicated to themes around Science, Medicine, Art, Research and Technology (S.M.A.R.T.). Twice a year, we invite speakers who are renowned for extraordinary achievements in their field – we are eager to continue the interdisciplinary discourse and widen our horizons!
What Makes a Great Invention? The Invention of the Alphabet in the Sinai Desert C. 1840 BCE
The 10th S.M.A.R.T. Lecture was held via Zoom by Orly Goldwasser, Professor of Egyptology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an Honorary Professor at the University of Göttingen. She talked about one of the greatest and lasting inventions in history: the alphabet. Interestingly, the alphabet was invented only once: all alphabetic scripts of all languages of the world originated from one single invention.
During her talk, Prof. Goldwasser introduced the history of how the alphabet was invented from hieroglyphs, dating back to C. 1840 BCE in the Sinai Desert. She explained how ancient inscriptions that were discovered in the mines during this period of history were made by the Canaanites, which were the people originally from Israel, Palestine and Lebanon who spoke a Semitic language, the mother language of the modern Hebrew and Arabic used nowadays. The essence of the invention of the alphabet lied in identify the meaning of the picture in the hieroglyph, naming it in Canaanite, extracting only the first sound of the picture and discard then the meaning of the picture entirely. Each sign became then one single sound.
In the past, there was no agreement in the international scientific community about where and when exactly was the alphabet invented. Prof. Goldwasser’s research work has been paramount in the reconstruction of the invention process. She made a breakthrough contribution by suggesting hieroglyphic models in the Sinai repertoire of Egyptian hieroglyphs that could have served as models for the inventors. She also identified through her work that the inventors were indeed illiterate Canaanites working in the mines of the Sinai desert.
We would like to thank Prof. Goldwasser for a very insightful talk and for carrying us with her talk to a very interesting time in history!
Population trends and the global sustainable development goals
The 9th S.M.A.R.T. Lecture held by Professor Wolfgang Lutz, Founding Director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/ÖAW, WU), was a plea for education. Particularly female education not only connects to a decrease of child mortality and to an increase of life expectancy, it proves to be key to the alleviation of poverty.
In his talk, Wolfgang Lutz proclaimed that essentially people are not very different all over the world. However, we face a universal development of “demographic modernization” with countries currently at different stages of the same process: In the first stage falling death rates due to better sanitation and medical advance together with a culturally determined high birth rate result in a high population growth. In a later stage of development birth rates also fall, leading to low or even negative population growth. By the examples of the demographic transition of Finland from 1722-2017, birth and death rates at Mauritius from 1875 on, and a study on the effect of income or education on the infant mortality in India Wolfgang Lutz impressively showed the effect of education on a higher life expectancy: When it comes to survival, mind matters more than money!
Empirical studies show that the most transformative social changes are associated with the spread of universal female literacy, and the future of world population growth and adaptive capacity to environmental change will crucially depend on female education. The “homo sapiens literata” (MPI-EVA, McElreath) - a sub-species of homo sapiens characterized by high abstraction, literacy, codified knowledge, complex socio-economic institutions and modern science - makes the change. A lively discussion followed the talk, which will continue at CeMM: How can we contribute to a positive societal development? Education matters!
We thank Professor Lutz for his inspiring talk within the S.M.A.R.T. lecture series at CeMM!
Livable Cities for the 21st century
The 8th CeMM S.M.A.R.T. Lecture held by architect and urban design consultant Jan Gehl was exceptionally entertaining and inspiring. It illustrated with many captivating examples the problems cities developed in the 20th century by pursuing an object- instead of a people-centered city planning and how simple measures can make cities livable. The emphasis on mobility, meaning the use of automobiles, lead to the so-called “sitting syndrome”, a lack of physical exercise that has become a mayor health threat. To counteract those developments, Jan Gehl pioneered an observation-based city planning by systematically documenting urban spaces, making gradual incremental improvements, then documenting them again.
His results are impressive: measures like banning cars from city centers, creating extensive and coherent biking lanes and designing nice and “sticky” places that people like to use, turned Copenhagen, where Jan Gehl was involved in the urban planning for over 40 years, from a car-dominated city into one of the most livable places in the world. Many other cities, including New York and Moscow, sought advice from Jan Gehl and improved their urban space with his help. A crowded seminar hall at CeMM with an audience of somewhat 150 people with all kinds of backgrounds followed this S.M.A.R.T. Lecture eagerly and engaged in lively discussions afterwards. Artist, architects, city planners and scientists met Jan Gehl in the brain lounge for an intense discussion round. We are proud, honored, and most thankful that Jan Gehl followed our invitation, and supports our efforts to foster the interdisciplinary discourse, widen our horizons and establish a dialogue with the broader public.
His take home message will remain firmly etched into our memories: The world is not about getting from A to B, the world is about having nice places to be!
Machine learning is changing everything
“Machine learning is the most powerful tool that mankind developed so far” – with these words, Hermann Hauser, physicist and extremely successful serial entrepreneur at Cambridge, opened his Lecture on one of the fastest developing technologies of our times. At the 7th S.M.A.R.T. lecture on March 27, 2016, he showed us that speech recognition in mobile phones, face recognition programs or recommender systems of commercial platforms are just some recent examples for the capabilities of machine learning. A key feature of this technology is responsible for its outstanding success: instead of following pre-programmed rules, the system learns from big data.
While this new technology will offer humanity a broad range of innovations and advantages, Hermann Hauser also pointed out the risks: “We must figure out how to ensure that super intelligent machines embody human values” he emphasized. Furthermore, they pose a major challenge for society: intelligent machines might put more than 50 % of jobs be in danger. However, at the same time machine learning opens up unique business opportunities, especially in the service and health care sector with its dramatic increase in high-throughput and sensor technologies. With his S.M.A.R.T. lecture on machine learning, Hermann Hauser gave us a thrilling overview of the latest developments and presented some eye-opening features of this revolutionary technology. Our warmest thanks to Herman Hauser for a wonderful and illuminating evening at CeMM!
The Stars over Babylon: Geometrical methods of the ancient astronomers
Mathieu Ossendrijver, professor for the history of ancient science at the Humboldt University in Berlin, presented his findings on astronomic calculations of ancient Babylonians in our fully booked lecture hall at the 6th CeMM S.M.A.R.T. lecture on November 11, 2016. From five cuneiform tablets, dating from 350 to 50 BCE, Ossendrijver decrypted a sophisticated calculation method to determine and predict Jupiter’s position. According to his findings, more than two thousand years ago the Babylonian astronomers were able to compute a body´s displacement as an area in time-velocity space – a mathematical operation that was hitherto thought to be invented only in the middle ages.
Ossendrijver’s discovery was a true sensation: when he published his findings in Science, it not only astonished his colleagues, but found a broad resonance all over the world. His work changed the view on ancient Babylonian astronomy, and above that, it showed that their mathematical skills might even have had an unprecedented impact on Greek mathematicians and their successors. The lecture was followed by a lively and fruitful discussion that continued at the subsequent reception – it rounded up a wonderful and enlightening evening.
Network Science: From the WWW to Human Diseases
On October 12th, 2015, we had the great pleasure to host Albert-László Barabási (Center of Complex Networks Research, Northeastern University and Division of Network Medicine, Harvard University) at CeMM. After several rounds of meetings with Ph.D. students and faculty, as well as a stimulating discussion with invited artists in the CeMM Brain Lounge, Albert- László Barabási delivered the 5th SMART lecture. His talk on network science attracted an audience of some 150 people.
In his talk, Albert-László Barabási recapitulated how networks can be used as a unifying framework to describe a wide range of seemingly unrelated systems: Computers that are connected via the internet, actors that played in the same movie, the interactions between proteins, or cities that are connected by flight routes, Albert- László Barabási showed there are universal structural features that are common among all these different networks. He argued that understanding these features is also essential for uncovering the molecular basis of human diseases. We thank Albert-László Barabási for his inspiring talk and the ensuing lively discussion that gave a vivid example of how cutting edge science can be communicated to a wider audience.
Big Data Challenges and Opportunities for Food and Nutritional Science
On March 16th 2015, the 4th SMART lecture was delivered by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of the Board of Nestlé S.A.. In his talk, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe stated Nestlé’s position as a global player in the food industry which is slowly changing into an industry increasingly considering health and wellness. He struck a blow for a cultural change elevating nutrition to the status of an all- important science. For Brabeck-Letmathe the endeavor goes far beyond measures such as reduction of sugar and salt in the industry’s products, instead of that, it really should be a constant commitment to healthier products.
Most importantly, he argued that research in nutrition sciences should be a priority to help disease prevention. Additionally, he presented some exemplary research projects involving Nestlé’s Institute of Health Sciences, located in Lausanne, Switzerland. Genes, diet and lifestyle appear to interact in a way, that is unique for each individual, at each time point of an individual’s life, creating the concept of “precision nutrition” following the concept of precision medicine. We thank Peter Brabeck-Letmathe for his visit and thought-provoking talk.
Silent Revolutions in Modern Health Care Systems
March 28th, 2014, saw the occasion of the third in the series of SMART Lectures. An enthusiastic and expectant audience of scientists, clinicians and interested lay people experienced a fascinating and thought-provoking lecture by the Italian-born neurologist and scientist, Gian Domenico Borasio, entitled “Empathy and Evidence – The Scientific Foundations of Palliative Medicine” which, afterwards, provoked a lively forum discussion.
Gian Domenico Borasio, MD, DipPallMed, is professor and chair in Palliative Medicine at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV) and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and, since 2012 has held the chair of the Clinical Ethics Commission of the CHUV. His CeMM SMART Lecture began with the acknowledgment of the pioneering work of Dame Cicely Saunders in the field of palliative medicine. He carried on with a detailed discussion of certain fundamental questions and concepts of ‘quality of life’ and ‘personal values’. Borasio is a recognized champion of the argument for medicine at the end of life. His book, entitled “Dying”, has been translated into three languages and has become a best-seller with the lay public.
His reflections are built on questions whose simplicity disguise their complexity, such as: “What do we need when we die?” During his SMART-lecture Dr. Borasio emphasized that palliative medicine is more, much more than terminal care. In recent years, alongside the progress in pharmacological symptom control, a huge amount of scientific evidence has accumulated which appears to show that psychosocial and spiritual care are every bit as important as medical treatment in the strict sense of the word. The lecture concluded with his outlook on the many barriers that still need to be overcome towards a general implementation of a palliative approach for a more sustainable healthcare system of the future.
The S.M.A.R.T. Lecture Series and the "God Particle"
On Monday 25th November 2013, Fabiola Gianotti from the Physics Department at CERN, Switzerland, presented a fantastic SMART lecture at CeMM entitled “The Higgs Boson and Our Life”, to a packed audience. Following a warm introduction by CeMM’s Scientific Director, Giulio Superti-Furga, Fabiola Gianotti began her talk by introducing CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, currently engaging over 11,000 scientists from more than 60 countries. CERN’s primary mission is the study of elemental particles, and Gianotti went on to describe how an understanding of the ‘very small’ can often help us to understand the ‘very big’.
The Higgs boson is an elementary particle, first discussed in 1964. Its discovery by CERN, announced on the 4th July 2012, was monumental. During the almost 40 year search for this particle, CERN developed and constructed the Large Hadron Collider over a 20 year period, which was critical for the discovery of the Higgs boson. Dr. Gianotti explained the three features required to study the behavior of elementary particles: an accelerator, a detector and computing power. These three features are combined in the Large Hadron Collider, which is a subterranean ring, 27km in circumference, lying across the border between Switzerland and France. Proton streams extracted from hydrogen gas are accelerated in a vacuum around the ring at immense speeds. Upon particle collision, energy is released which can be transformed into matter – in the form of larger, heavier particles.
Through this process, the Large Hadron Collider is able to create Higgs bosons and other particles for observation and study. By advancing the frontiers of technology, such discoveries will ultimately prove to be beneficial to society. Many questions followed Dr. Gianotti’s fascinating lecture, including whether the Higgs boson can help us better understand dark matter, or the origin of the universe. Dr. Gianotti explained that they aim to recreate conditions at the beginning of the universe for study, and then translate these finding back in time. At CERN there is a strong focus on training the next generation of scientists and more than half of CERN’s collaborative scientists are under the age of 30. In an inspirational take home message for the young scientists in the audience, Dr. Gianotti emphasised that curiosity was essential for research and for driving motivation.
Inauguration of the CeMM S.M.A.R.T. series of Lectures by Dr. Norbert Bischofberger
The first CeMM SMART Lecture was inaugurated on Monday, 19 March 2011, by Dr. Norbert Bischofberger, Executive Vice President of Research and Development and Chief Scientific Officer of Gilead Sciences, Inc. This new series of lectures address contemporary challenges of science at the interface of science and society, and science and art, and in an interdisciplinary manner. In the first SMART lecture, entitled “Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development: Combating the Global Threat of HIV and HCV”, Dr. Bischofberger talked about the evolution of HIV and Hepatitis C (HCV), both in terms of the diseases they cause, and how the medical community has worked to develop more effective treatments. It was an intriguing tale of two diseases and a company.
In 1996, when the first HIV treatments became available, patients were required to take a complex mixture of over 30 drugs, some with fluids some without. Unsurprisingly, these complicated regimes had a profoundly negative impact on the patients’ quality of life. Norbert explained the rationale and the scientific breakthroughs that enabled the transition, around 10 years later, to fewer, more effective and bettertolerated anti-HIV drugs with the subsequent dramatic improvement in quality of life. Gilead has also launched an access program involving 132 low-income countries with the aim to provide these drugs at no profit.
The lecture was followed by a panel discussion and questions from the audience. One topic that was aired was the possibility of developing an effective HIV vaccine, which has thus far remained elusive. Norbert stated that despite his overall optimism concerning therapeutics for HIV, he does not consider it likely that a vaccine will be developed in the near future. Rather, he felt that modern technologies will enable more efficient, targeted, and better tolerated compounds that, when combined with policy changes, can contribute to the more global availability of drugs.