Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Recommends
Before you start on your undergraduate Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences degree course here at Birmingham you may be wondering if there is anything you could be doing to prepare.
You'll receive a thorough induction when you start, but if you find that you have some time over the summer, here are recommendations from some of our lecturers to get you thinking:
Last updated: 04 August 2021
I really enjoy the Nature daily briefing to keep up with the latest research news from all over science.
The main thing this summer is for you to get a rest and do things you like.
If you want to read over the summer but don’t know where to begin have a look through some book prize nominees. As a biologist by trade I would suggest the Wellcome Trust book prize. The books span fiction and non-fiction and the only condition is that they should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. If stuck for fiction read some Octavia Butler or look to lists like Man Booker (international and not), or the women’s prize for fiction. That way there will normally be copies in the library or second hand bookshops - I cannot recommend libraries enough.
I also recommend listening to podcasts such as More or Less, Short Cuts, Science Vs, and The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry. RadioLab is also always good and had an excellent mini-series on genius, on gonads and another on Harry Pace.
Dr Julian Pänke (Political Science and International Studies)
I'd recommend the following books:
This looks at different international relations theories in a zombie apocalypse.
It’s amazing to see how little has changed in the UK compared to 1937.
These books will introduce you to classics:
Fictional books that you might enjoy include:
With James Joyce’s Bloomsday on 16th June, and the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the 20thC Modernist movement, I suggest that watching Alan Gilsenan’s new Ulysses | Film would be a thought-provoking and interestingly reflective response to one of European literature’s greatest works.
I would also strongly recommend the recent Vice Chancellor's Great Debate “Trolls, flat-earthers and fake news purveyors” - we all need to be vigilant and scrutinise what we (think we) know, where we get our information, and from whom. And examine what we think counts as trustworthy in the media maelstrom we exist in.
Applicants interested in the politics and propaganda (and aesthetics) that swirl around the raising and demolition of statues might want to explore Liesbeth Corens’ blog, with this post that gathers a wealth of resources.
Anyone who has not yet read the fabulously mathematical Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll) should definitely consider it, and it's available for free. Not free, but interesting as a companion piece, Alex Bellos’ Alex Through the Looking Glass.
If you like, and are interested in these humanities/sciences cross-overs, then Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia is ideal, and there is an open access (fremium) discussion by Liliane Campos that gives some helpful interpretative pointers about the blurry lines.
Anyone wanting to try reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales should check out these amazing online resources — you don’t have to be planning to Major in a humanities subject to be bowled over by the humour, pathos, and strange familiarity of these stories.
Interested in the past and how it’s curated through museums and cultural collections? The #MuseumsUnlocked hashtag on twitter has seen @profdanhicks open up a wide array of sites and spaces through twitter crowdsourcing to produce a startling new way of understanding the idea of the Museum.
Want to know more about how study of the ancient world is transformed in contemporary scholarship? Check out Eidolon journal.
The idea of exceptionalism in human affairs is strong. COVID-19 seems as if it’s unique in much reporting; yet it has its own history, and fits into a wider history of human interaction with emerging and persisting viruses. This recent and open-access article brings medicine, sociology, and history together to give an insight into what one might call the pathology of the relationships over time.
Listen to Birmingham’s Alice Roberts talking on the great Life Scientific BBC podcast about the basics of the human form — our bones, at once our identity and a way of deconstructing the ways in which all life forms are connected. The discussion strongly emphasises the crucial role interdisciplinarity plays in expanding our knowledge of what makes us tick.
Verbal language is one of humanity’s most ubiquitous codes. Codes shape individuals and society as well as reflecting changing patterns of activity and metaphoric landscape.
The relationship between language and power is especially sensitive in a world where languages are ever more present and cross-culturally tangled. This BBC podcast is great for unpicking some of the challenges around understanding and intelligibility that confront all processes of translation and recodification.
Important for anyone interested in how meaning is produced across all areas of study!
At the heart of everything are codes and signs through which we communicate. Anyone with an interest in these ‘semiotics’, some of which are verbal but others not, might find it entertaining to find out how interconnected European languages are and where their intersections with the first political language that united Europe (Latin) lies.
- www.latinometer.com evaluates English prose and assigns a Latinate percentage to the score. Each word is defined as deriving from Greek, Latin, French, Germanic, with function words excluded. The words are also linked to Thesaurus.com, so that if one wishes to reduce the Latinity of one's prose, one can search for a Germanic equivalent.
- I have found it interesting to explore political comment using this tool, see eg https://www.whitehouse.gov/remarks/ for samples. Understanding the hidden code embedded in language is a powerful tool, even when the speaker is (perhaps) unaware of the significance.
Dr Ilija Rasovic (Engineering and Physical Sciences)
A notoriously tough nut to crack would be Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter. Other recommendations are The Social Function of Science by J. D. Bernal and Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis. I also recommend the Four Thought BBC podcast episode "Embracing Uncertainty".
I find Nietzsche endlessly fascinating, but his philosophy can be very difficult to navigate at the start. Many students start with Thus Spake Zarathustra, which is the worst book to begin with because it is written for a reader who has a good knowledge of his philosophy. I'd recommend this beautifully and clearly written book on his middle period:
I’d also recommend Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life, which uses Ancient Philosophy to explore fundamental questions such as: what is a good life?
I’d also recommend The History of Philosophy without any gaps, which has engaging, thoughtful podcasts on major and lesser known philosophers. Don’t take notes, just listen to them and enjoy them, and listen to them in order so that you can understand how philosophy develops through these thinkers.
The Atlantic is a literary and cultural online magazine. Michael Sandel is an excellent moral philosopher and some of his articles appear in here. This article argues against designer babies and warns that we should be having a discussion now about the advances in genetically enhanced people (soon enough it will be common practice and, as a species, we won’t be ready to handle it responsibly). Michael Sandel has a gift of communicating moral problems to non-expert audiences; you should check out his Harvard lectures on Harvard University’s Justice page.
Cultural theory is a fascinating interdisciplinary study that seeks to interpret popular culture in order to understand our society better. Popular culture is constitutive of our social identity, and we should have a more informed understanding of what we usually passive receive without thinking. I recommend this excellent YouTube channel called The Take, which is both entertaining and educational.
To date, there are 143 episodes of Philosophize this, and there’s a great variety of excellent in-depth discussion about key philosophers, concepts, books, and branches of philosophy. You can get it on Spotify, but transcripts are available from the website.
James Everest, Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences
I've been listening to a couple of episodes of David Runciman's 'History of Ideas' podcast recently, while pushing a pram around.
I listened to the episodes on Max Weber, Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon and I thought they were brilliant. It makes you realise how compelling just one interesting person talking about something interesting can be.
Anyway, see what you think - you can probably get something out of them even without a pram...
Dr Julia Myatt (Life and Environmental Sciences)
I’ve become really interested in some of the key discussions around gender and race from multidisciplinary perspectives (e.g. biologically, historically, culturally) in recent years. Below are some key books I would recommend:
- Inferior by Angela Saini
- Superior by Angela Saini
- Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine
- Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
- The Gendered Brain by Angela Rippon (Angela was our keynote speaker at the National Natural Sciences student conference in 2019!)
I’m currently reading Range by David Epstein which is a brilliant read for anyone studying a range of disciplines.
As a field biologist I have been lucky enough to spend my time living and working in a variety of countries and environments (both wild and urban) and I love to read books about travel and living in different countries. Some of the books that have inspired me to dig deeper into the history and societies in different places include (apologies, some are old but still good!):
- Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
- A Year of Living Danishly by Helen Rusell
- Beauty and the Beasts by Carole Jahme
- An Elephant in My Kitchen by Francoise Malby-Anthony
When I have time (and often when I was pushing a pram around during nap time!) I like to listen to the following podcasts:
- Wild About Conservation
- The Life Scientific
- A Sustainable Mind
It’s also worth signing up to the Forum for Global Challenges to find out about lots of really interesting talks and sessions that will be happening in the lead up to the Forum for Global Challenges at the ICC in Birmingham in May 2022.