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Plenary Lectures

On the Pembroke-King’s Summer Programme we encourage you to develop your academic curiosity and benefit from the unique learning environment at Cambridge. This is why each year we hold a series of plenary lectures, given by eminent figures of University and public life, on a diverse range of topics.

The talks are open to all students on PKP and are followed by an informal Q&A session and drinks with the speaker.

Take a look at this year's plenary talks and speakers:


Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury

On 23 June 2016 the UK held a referendum in which 51.9% of those voting supported leaving the European Union. After invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union the UK was due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, a deadline which has since been extended.

In an ever changing political landscape, Lord Smith will discuss where things have reached in terms of negotiations and politics of Brexit, and the possibilities and options moving forward.  

About the speaker

Lord Smith is the Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

From 1983 to 2005, Lord Smith was the MP for Islington South and Finsbury. As Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport between 1997 and 2001, he restored free admission to national museums and galleries, established NESTA, the Film Council, Creative Partnerships for schools, and the Foundation for Youth Music, expanded funding for the arts and sport, championed the creative industries for the first time in Government, and began the switchover process for digital television.

Lord Smith played a leading role in opposing the Iraq war, and was made a life peer after standing down from the Commons in 2005. He currently sits on the crossbenches as an independent Peer.

Parseltongue: An Application of Linguistics

Professor Francis Nolan

Parseltongue, in the Harry Potter books and films, is the fictional language which allows humans and snakes to speak to each other. No samples of the language are offered in the books, and so when the producer of the second Harry Potter film decided to include a scene with Parseltongue he needed the spoken language to be created.

This talk will discuss the creation of fragments of Parseltongue, including what the rationale was for adopting particular phonetic and other features. In presenting Parseltongue I will mention for comparison two other ‘conlangs’ (constructed languages) and show how the creation of a made-up language draws on all levels of the analysis of human languages.

In the case of Parseltongue some imaginative reasoning is also needed based on how snakes might shape the shared language. The process constitutes a somewhat unusual application of linguistic knowledge, one which touches on both the differences and the underlying commonalities found in human languages.

About the speaker

Francis Nolan is Professor of Phonetics in the University of Cambridge. Phonetics is where the cognitive structures of language meet the physical world of sound. Francis Nolan’s research interests range over phonetic theory, prosody, connected speech processes, and speaker characteristics (including their use in forensics), all of which he covers in his undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. He has supervised students doing projects on languages as diverse as Welsh, Estonian, Korean, and various Chinese languages.

His interest in prosody led to the IViE project (Intonational Variation in English) which surveyed the intonation of urban areas in the British Isles, and to the PVI (pairwise variability index), a metric which has been widely used to quantify the rhythm of different languages and dialects. His DyViS project provided as one of its outputs a database of 100 accent-matched speakers which has been much used in developing and testing methods of speaker identification.

Francis Nolan is a member of the Council of the International Phonetic Association, a founder member of the International Association for Forensic Phonetics and Acoustics, and has served as President of the British Association of Academic Phoneticians.

'A Million Alien Gospels': The Surprising Story of Religion and Thought about Extraterrestrial Life 

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison

The confirmation, in 1995, of planets around stars other than our own Sun catapulted the science of astrobiology to new prominence. Today, almost twenty-five years on, new extra-solar planets are discovered almost every day, and significant steps are being make in the task of thinking about their capacity to harbour life.

In recent years, interest in this field has also stirred among scholars in the arts, humanities and social science: theologians and scholars of religion among them. Dr Davison will set out some of the science, and chart the surprisingly long and intricate story of discussion of life elsewhere in the universe by Christian thinkers.

In its current form, the conversation goes back to the mid-fifteenth century. He will draw parallels with other religious traditions, and close by considering some neglected themes among the implications of life beyond Earth for religious belief. 

About the speaker

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College. His exploration of the implications of life elsewhere in the universe for Christian theology, Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine, to be published next year, will be the most extensive study yet written.