OUSL Activities in 2009

November and December 2009 - The Oxford stand at the “Foire de l’Étudiant” and interview help for entrance candidates

As in previous years the Society ran the Oxford stand at the annual Student Fair on 12th and 13th November, providing information about studying at Oxford University to school pupils attending the fair, as well as to parents and teachers. We talked to a large number of potential applicants and received a very positive response. We also ran practice interviews for several candidates.
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Thursday 8th October - Oxford Society Welcomes Leading Medieval Historian
Lecture and Dinner at the Cercle Munster

“By around the time of Edward II’s deposition in 1327, Parliament has acquired the general shape which it would keep all through the later Middle Ages and into Tudor England and to some extent into modern times.”
This was the opening statement of the Lecture by Dr John Maddicott, the acknowledged expert on the origins of the English Parliament. So what might initially have seemed a very specialised and even purely academic subject immediately announced itself as being of direct relevance not only to England and the British Isles, but to all democratic parliamentary political structures, including that of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. What followed was a scholarly and gripping story given by a total master of his subject

Dr Maddicott, recently retired from his position of professor of history at Exeter College Oxford (where he taught one of the OUSL?s founder members), is the author of, amongst many other things, the definitive biography of Simon de Montfort V, Earl of Leicester.

Over 50 people of a wide variety of nationalities attended the lecture which was followed by a vin d’honneur and, for those who wished to stay and meet Dr. Maddicott and become involved in a lively and interactive question-and-answer session, an entertaining dinner at the Cercle Munster.

The full text of the Lecture is available here
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Wednesday 10th June - AGM and Annual Dinner

The society held its AGM and annual dinner in the traditional setting of the Cercle Munster. Dr Rolf Tarrach, Rector of the University of Luxembourg, and a distinguished fundamental physicist and scientific administrator, spoke on the subject of “The Limits to Knowledge”.

In Dr Tarrach’s analysis, there exist both essential and temporary limits.

The essential limits are deep and remarkable:

  • Firstly, as Kurt Gödel proved in 1931, mathematics is inexhaustible, in the sense that no finite set of axioms is enough to prove all non-trivial propositions of the discipline.
  • Secondly, as Alan Turing showed in 1951, there are propositions undecidable by computer, and there is no formal test to distinguish a computer’s reasoning from that of a brain.
  • Thirdly, as John Bell showed, if quantum mechanics is true, nature cannot be locally realistic. One therefore will never be able to predict elementary events.
  • Fourthly, we will not be able to probe back much further toward the origins of the universe, as the accelerators needed to do so would be ridiculously large and expensive.
All these limits might be considered objective.

There are also strong subjective limits. Our brains are the fruit of evolution. They are incapable of understanding a world where local cause and local effect do not prevail. They cannot grasp intuitively the nature of quantum mechanics, and even less so that of quantum gravity. These limits to our thinking may also seriously constrain how humanity deals with the crisis of global warming. Our minds were formed to deal with the threats and forces that shaped the life of primitive man. They are not adapted to respond emotionally to forces that take effect over a hundred years and apply across the whole surface of the globe. Moreover, if there is any pressure to reshape the brain, the process of evolution by natural selection works far too slowly to allow mankind, through a better-adapted brain, to adapt to the forces shaping our future.

Dr Tarrach also, more speculatively, examined the limits of thinking. Recent neurological research has shown that the autonomous brain reaches its decision one third of a second before the conscious brain is aware of it. Dr Tarrach thought that this might put the notion of free will in doubt. He showed that we know very little about how the brain works. We can expect that our knowledge of the brain will rapidly grow. Perhaps our reasoning brain will find new ways to overcome the deficiencies of the instinctive and intuitive processes of thought and action.

One field for improvement is the handling of information. We are burdened with ever greater volumes of it, but we have not improved our ability to convert facts and data through concepts into knowledge.

Dr Tarrach concluded with some thoughts on subjects which we decide not to know all about, such as our risk of succumbing to a disease for which one might have a genetic predisposition.

A number of Cambridge graduates were among the many guests. Ideas flowed freely, stimulated by Dr Tarrach’s brilliant talk, which he delivered in two parts, during the pauses between the courses of an excellent dinner, impeccably served by the staff of the Cercle Munster. All present agreed that the evening wa an unqualified success.
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Saturday 16th May - Piano Recital by Rüdiger Pansch

Thanks to the good offices of our member, Jan Koenighaus, the Society was privileged to present a piano recital performed by Rüdiger Pansch. Pansch obtained the degree of MJur at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he also won musical awards, and now practises as an attorney for IP law in Duesseldorf. The venue was the private concert room of Mr and Mrs. Edward Seymour.

The programme comprised piano works by Haydn (Variations in F minor - Hoboken XVII:6) and Schumann (Arabesque in C major op. 18, followed by Etudes Symphoniques op.13) and a powerful encore in the Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66 by Chopin.

Both main pieces were structured as variations on a theme, but there the resemblance ended. The theme of the Haydn piece was simple and was built up slowly through multiple variations. The theme of Schumann symphonic etudes was rich and complex and the variations passed through lyrical foothills to mountains of passionate intensity. The pianist and instrument were in perfect rapport.

The concert was originally planned to be a recital of the Schubert song cycle, Die Winterreise. The indisposition of the baritone, Nick Berry, prevented this. The prodigious talent of Rüdiger provided a brilliant fallback programme. We hope to arrange the original programme another day.
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Friday 20th March 2009 - Lectures by Prof. Vernon Bogdanor

Members of the society were invited to hear Professor Vernon Bogdanor CBE FBA speak on “The New British Constitution”, at a colloquium at Luxembourg University co-sponsored by the British Embassy and by the Society, and on “Churchill and Europe”, at the annual Winston Churchill Memorial Lecture, hosted by the British Embassy and the British-Luxembourg Association.

Prof. Bogdanor is Professor of Government at Oxford University and a fellow of Brasenose College Oxford. A member of the society was instrumental in assisting the University and the British Embassy in arranging the visit.

In the first lecture, Prof. Bogdanor declared that the British constitution was not so much unwritten as uncodified and scattered through many pieces of legislation. In the modern world it was hard to defend its scattered and unsystematic character. A citizen should be able to see his constitutional position in a single document.
That a constitution denies sovereignty to parliament is a stumbling block. In practice, the British Parliament has lost power both through a formally irreversible transfer of competence to Europe and through devolution, which is only theoretically reversible. Devolution takes diverse forms. In Scotland, all domestic legislation is devolved, leading to striking differences with England. In Northern Ireland, wide powers have been devolved to the political system, which includes an obligatory coalition for government, while the Welsh Assembly only has power to pass secondary legislation. The House of Lords should, in Prof. Bogdanor’s view, be directly elected by proportional representation. If this came about, it would make it harder to defend the present system for electing MPs. It might transfer authority to the upper house from the lower.

In the second lecture, Prof. Bogdanor’s view was that Churchill’s mind on Europe was divided. Although his famous Zurich speech of 1946 reflected his long-held views, the unplanned speech content was prompted by Duncan Sandys, his son-in-law. His view was that Britain must at least try to join Europe and see whether she could reconcile her separate goals with Europe’s need to unite, and thus avoid another war between France and Germany. Churchill at times spoke of Britain as a benevolent outsider but at other times as an integral part of Europe. The Commonwealth, he thought, could be a base for Britain’s influence in the world, even once it was made up of independent states. The US special relationship was, for him, real and strong. He believed that a timely alliance with the US would have avoided both world wars. At the height of his career, he would have had Britain play a large part in the European plan and would have subsumed monetary interests and values for the sake of the grand political aim of peace.
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