Village Hall Talks at Wootton-By-Woodstock

The project was conceived to raise funds to renovate the village hall in Wootton-by-Woodstock, which was built almost entirely from timber over eighty years ago. Few who have attended the talks would disagree that the evenings have been an engaging mixture of serious insight and comedic observation and we think we are catering for the current thirst for live events in smaller venues.

The Robert Matthews Talk

The Robert Matthews Talk

Robert, a Visiting Professor in Mathematics at Aston University, started his talk on September 16th by admitting that he – perhaps like most of the audience – found probability a boring and difficult subject at school. Only years later did he begin to realise that it held the key to understanding the effect of chance, randomness and uncertainty - of which there’s no shortage in our lives. As an academic, Robert has focused on using the theory of probability to understand such things, and earlier this year published Chancing It, a popular-level book on the subject.

To show the power of even the simple rules of probability, Robert took us through the strange tale of Futility, a short story by the American author Morgan Robertson published in 1898. It describes how the story’s hero signed up to join the crew of the world’s largest ship on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. All went well until the ship – described as “unsinkable” – struck an iceberg on the starboard side and began to sank. Only then did the passengers discover there were insufficient lifeboats for all on board, and there was huge loss of life. The parallels with the sinking of RMS Titanic 14 years later are obvious but, as if this wasn’t spooky enough, Robert added that the story had a sub-title: “The Wreck of the Titan”. The coincidences didn’t stop there, either: the length, tonnage, number of propellers, and even the side struck by the iceberg described in the book were all eerily similar to what happened in 1912.

Robert then took us through this apparent example of clairvoyance using basic rules of probability – such as the much greater chance of events happening if they appear independent of each other, but aren't. For example, given that the story focused on the world’s largest ship, it had to be at least as big as any ships in the 1890s, and these were already exceeding 600 ft. So the fact that the Titan was – like RMS Titanic – over 800ft long is no longer so surprising. The similarity in length then leads to similarities in tonnage and number of propellers simply for consistency – and thus aren’t independent of each other. As for the name, the world’s largest ship is far more likely to be called, say, SS Colossus or Leviathan than SS Midget, and Titan is among just a handful of appropriate names.

Having shown how we can be fooled by events that seem independent but aren’t, Robert went on to describe other causes of freak events – like simply giving rare events lots of opportunities to occur. England cricket captain Nasser Hussain lost the toss 14 times on the trot – a 1 in 16,000 event. But as Robert pointed out, Hussain had an extensive career in first class cricket giving him lots of opportunity to experience such a “run”. Add in all his counterparts in all the other teams in other countries down the years, it's clear that this apparently amazingly rare event was always going to happen to some top cricketer eventually; it just happened to be him.

Robert then went on to explain a simple coincidence-based bet that anyone watching a football match can have with a friend: "I bet you there's a pair of players on the pitch with birthdays within a day of each other". With 22 players and 365 days, this would seem a fairly long shot. But Robert pointed out we’re overlooking the fact that those 22 players lead to 231 different comparisons of birthdays - greatly increasing the chances of getting a coincidence. In fact, according to Robert, probability theory shows that the chances of the bet paying off are almost 90 per cent. He then went on to demonstrate it using the real-life matches between Manchester United and Manchester City, and Celtic and Rangers which – by coincidence – both took place on 10 September this year.

After some advice about how to make money gambling (best summed up, perhaps, as “don't even think about it”), Robert took us to the frontiers of his subject, and how a result called Bayes’s Theorem is at the heart of a major scandal now running through science. This bit of maths allows us to work out the chances that a theory is correct, given the data gathered by researchers – and as such is crucial to the scientific enterprise.

However, Robert explained that the theorem has provoked huge controversy, because it seems to allow subjectivity into the scientific process. Attempts have been made to avoid this, and these have become the standard techniques used by scientists to decide if a new result is “significant”. Robert pointed out that many statisticians have tried to warn scientists that these attempts to dodge Bayes’s Theorem are deeply flawed, and likely to lead to “discoveries” that are really just fluke results. Robert added that he was among those issuing warnings of trouble ahead for science back in the 1990s, in both academic journals and the national media, but to no effect.

However, it seems this is now changing. Robert ended his talk by showing recent reports in leading research journals about the many headline-grabbing “breakthroughs” based on the flawed techniques are indeed turning out to be meaningless flukes.

Robert’s advice to those of us unsure of whom to believe any more was simple enough: “Don’t panic: there is a way forward – and it’s in my book”. Over 120 people packed the hall, captivated by his insight, and Robert sold many copies of his book, Chancing It.

"Robert achieved what I thought was impossible - for me, he made a potentially complex area of mathematics on probability completely accessible and, indeed, astonishing.This is a rare gift because so many scientists are often happy to wallow in jargon, understandable only to fellow scientists - but Robert showed us how probability theory works, offering some wonderful penetrating examples, and it made for a total eye-opener. Another hugely enjoyable evening of pure revelation" - Mike Benfield, Witney


Friday October 14th 2016.

90th talk and eighth birthday

The talk is entitled: Remembering Shakespeare

Laurie is a Professor of English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, and a leading authority on the works of William Shakespeare and she has been in demand around the world this year - the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death.

We are delighted that Laurie has agreed to appear in Wootton as the speaker on our eighth birthday - and returns by popular demand following her magisterial talk on Helen of Troy in April 2012.

At Oxford, Laurie teaches Shakespeare and the Renaissance, as well as lecturing on his contemporaries. Her wide-ranging research includes textual studies, Elizabethan performance and classical influences on Renaissance writers. She has also written widely on Elizabethan barbers and surgeons and medical humanities.

Laurie's extensive list of publications includes her book, Thirty Great Myths about Shakespeare (co-authored with Emma Smith); the highly popular Where There's a Will There's A Way; plus Shakespeare's Names; and How to Do Things with Shakespeare.

Laurie is a trustee of Shakespeare's Globe and, as well as being a world authority on Shakespeare, she is also a committed athlete and has swum Lake Windermere.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


Friday November 11th 2016..

Emma Bridgewater has become a household name, having spent 30 years building up a hugely successful pottery business, with products most recognisable in her trademark mugs, bowls and plates. Emma was educated at Oxford High School and at London University, where she read English.

With no formal training, she quickly established the business bearing her name - and which now employs 250 people in London and in Stoke on Trent, where she spearheaded a revival in traditional craft skills in the Potteries.

A refusal to outsource manufacturing to low-wage economies abroad has led Emma to a role as a champion of British industry and in particular of manufacturing in the UK - something about which she feels very strongly. Emma is married to illustrator and designer Matthew Rice, who spoke in Wootton in July 2013, and they live with their four children near Oxford.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


Friday December 2nd 2016.

Tim is a professor at the University of Sheffield where he teaches animal behaviour and the history of science. He is making a return visit to Wootton by popular demand following his compelling appearance in March 2012 when he spoke so wonderfully about his book, called Bird Sense.

On this occasion, Tim, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and multi-award winning author, will be speaking about his latest publication, called The Most Perfect Thing (Inside and Outside a Bird’s Egg) , in which he examines such key questions such as - how are eggs of different shapes made, and why are they the shape they are? When does the shell of an egg harden? Why do some eggs contain two yolks? How are the colours and patterns of an eggshell created, and why do they vary? And which end of an egg is laid first – the blunt end or the pointy end?

These are just some of the issues that The Most Perfect Thing answers as the journey of a bird's egg from creation and fertilisation to its eventual hatching is examined - with current scientific knowledge placed within an historical context. Beginning with an examination of the stunning eggs of the guillemot, each of which is so variable in pattern and colour that no two are ever the same, Tim then looks at the eggs of hens, cuckoos and many other birds, revealing weird and wonderful facts about these miracles of nature. Woven around and supporting these facts are extraordinary stories of the individuals who, from as far back as Ancient Egypt, have been fixated on the study and collection of eggs - but not always to the benefit of their conservation.

As Thomas Wentworth Higginson proclaimed in 1862 - "I think that, if required on pain of death to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird's egg".

The Most Perfect Thing is beautifully illustrated and has won rave reviews. Nick Davies, author of Cuckoo wrote: "The title is also a perfect description of the book itself - full of wonder and surprise and beautifully written”, whilst The Sunday Times described it as: “Eye-opening ….thoroughly engaging, it also gives us a thrilling sense of the vast, unmapped territories that lie beyond, waiting to be discovered”. The Observer said: "“Birkhead's approach to writing – hard, clear sentences; deep, revelatory looking – has the same effect as his microscope, bringing objects to light that were previously hidden, making us see the familiar with new eyes“ and BBC Wildlife magazine added that Tim is "justly acclaimed for his brilliance at explaining complex science in a beguilingly lively style ….I suspect that this beautifully written volume will end up the best bird book of 2016”

Tim's research has taken him all over the world in the quest to understand the lives of birds. He has written for The Independent, New Scientist, BBC Wildlife and among his other books are The Wisdom of Birds, Great Auk Islands, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Birds, which won the McColvin medal, and The Red Canary - winner of the Consul Cremer Prize.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


Friday January 13th 2017.

Sir Anthony, currently Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, is a leading contemporary historian, educationalist, commentator and political author.

He was Master of Wellington College, in Berkshire, one of Britain's leading independent schools, until 2015. Sir Anthony is also the author or editor of over 40 books on contemporary history, politics and education, including biographies of Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He was co-founder and first director of the Centre for Contemporary British History and he is also co-founder of Action for Happiness, as well as being honorary historical adviser to 10 Downing Street.

Sir Anthony's many other activities include being Chair of the National Comment Awards, a member of the First World War Centenary Culture Committee, and a governor of The Royal Shakespeare Company.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


Friday February 10th 2017.

His talk is called: The Joy of Railways

Michael is a leading author, journalist and academic – writing, broadcasting and blogging on transport, society and the media. He is the best-selling author of several highly-acclaimed books on Britain's railways, including On the Slow Train (Twelve Great British Railway Journeys); Steaming to Victory (How Britain's Railways Won the War); and his recently updated work, The Trains Now Departed (Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britain's Railways). His talk will be packed with nostalgia – and some enjoyable armchair travelling for a winter's evening.

Michael is also a leading travel writer, reporting on journeys around the world for a variety of publications. In his academic role, he is co-editor and author of the book The Future of Quality News Journalism. Formerly, he was Deputy Editor of the Independent on Sunday, Executive Editor of The Independent, Head of News and Features at the Sunday Times; and he was also on the staff of The Times. Michael still regularly contributes to the national media, including the BBC, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, New Statesman, the Tablet, The History Channel, as well as the specialist and business press.

In addition, Michael is chairman of the Springdene Care Homes Group in London and external examiner in the School of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths University, in London. He lives with his family in Camden Town, London.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


OX20 1DZ

John Lloyd & John Mitchinson Talk, Summer 2009

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