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The Festival of Ideas at St John’s

St John’s College is once again the main venue partner for this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas, a two week celebration of the arts, humanities and social sciences featuring an array of top speakers. All events are free and open to the public.

Many events from this year’s programme will be taking place at the College, including many of the festival’s main discussions and lectures. They cover topics such as the image and reputation of asylum seekers, how best to manage your sleep cycle, and whether people really have had enough of experts.

Although all events are free to attend and open to all, some require pre-booking. You can find out specific details about any of the events taking place across Cambridge via the Festival of Ideas website. For a summary of the programme at St John’s College itself, see below. We look forward to seeing you there!

To book an event visit or call 01223 766766.

Monday 16 October


Herodotus is referred to as the 'father of history' - and he was that, and also much more besides: the father of comparative ethnography, and the father of cultural history of civilisations among others .... But much of his life remains a mystery, and there are a ton more things to be discussed about his superb work, The Histories. Join translator Tom Holland and Herodotus expert Professor Paul Cartledge in conversation about this enigmatic figure and what we can learn about history from his writings. St John's College Old Divinity School, 6:00pm - 7:00pm. Booking required.

The Black Cantabs project exhibition

The Black Cantabs is a historical and research focused society that aims to uncover Cambridge University's lost and forgotten black students by highlighting and sharing their past and present stories, experiences and achievements. Through its activities, the society documents and features the diverse and rich histories of these pioneering scholars. St John's Chapel, 16 October- 23 October, 9:30am - 7:30pm. Drop in.


We know that populists can be sloppy with facts and speedy with promises that are impossible to deliver. Yet populist leaders also tend to highlight real inequities and to persuade followers that they are in possession of some greater truth. Followers often outsource their judgment to the populist leader on the basis of this belief. What, then, is the relationship between populism and truth? What might we learn about our contemporary political moment from an understanding of this relationship? In this panel, we explore these less discussed aspects of populism, drawing on current and historical examples from Argentina to India, and from Turkey to Russia. St John's College Fisher Building, 6:00pm - 7:30pm. Booking required


Tuesday 17 October

You are what you sleep

Insufficient sleep affects all stages of a person’s live, from their development as a child and teenager, to their ability to function as an adult at home and work. You are what you sleep takes attendees through all the different effects of insufficient sleep, from the impact on individual health and performance, to the impact on businesses and the wider economy. The session looks at what can be done to tackle the growing problem of sleep deprivation in society, and explains why the science and economics show that sleep really matters. St John's College Old Divinity School, 6:00pm - 7:15pm. Booking required.

Rewriting history

Is history always written by the victors? Panelists Ruth Dudley Edwards, Kehinde Andrews, Maximilian Sternberg and Yesim Yaprak Yildiz will discuss how history is used to advance nationalist and colonialist ideas and how different sides can fervently believe different versions of the same events. Their contributions will cover decolonisation, Irish history, torturers’ confessions in Turkey and how architectural heritage is used and abused in Jerusalem. St John's College Fisher Building, 6:00pm - 7:30pm. Booking required.

Pani, pahar: waters of the Himalayas

This photography exhibition explores the changing landscape and escalating water crisis of the Indian Himalayas. The installation combines academic research in geography and conservation with contemporary work by photojournalist Toby Smith and curated archival images from the collections of the University Library and Centre for South Asian Studies. St John's College Old Divinity School, 17 October- 24 October, 10:00am-5:00pm. Drop in.


Wednesday 18 October

Big Questions: How do we know what we know?

A hands-on day exploring "Big Questions" in Science and Religion. St John's College Old Divinity School, 1:00pm - 4:00pm. Booking required.

I don't know it for a fact, i just know it's true: how conspiracy theories stake their claims to truth 

In the abstract and as a generic class, conspiracy theories arouse scepticism. Yet sometimes when we actually confront a conspiracy theory 'in the flesh,' they can appear - at least on first sight - strangely persuasive. What strategies do these narratives employ in making their pitch for plausibility and staking their claim to be true. The Conspiracy and Democracy Team has been conducting research at CRASSH for the last four years on this intriguing aspect of modern society. In this discussion, some of its members will examine the relationship between conspiracy theories and truth. St John's College Fisher Building, 6:00pm - 7:30pm. Booking required.

Lovers: discussion

The artworks displayed are based on the exchange between Uta Paszkowski and the artist Essi Kausalainen. St John's College Old Divinity School, 6:00pm - 7:00pm. Booking required.


Thursday 19 October

Refugees: Truths and innocent lies

Refugees often have to give the most personal details to prove their past and receive asylum. But how easy is it to be open and truthful in a climate of mistrust when governments are looking to keep numbers down? Lucy Popescu, editor of A Country of Refuge, speaks to asylum seekers and writers Noo Saro-Wiwa and Hassan Abdulrazzak, and Tim Finch, writer and former director of communications for the Refugee Council, about their experiences. St John's College Fisher Building, 6:00pm - 7:30pm. Booking required.


Friday 20 October

Fake News

Accusations of slurs and slanders, lies and misinformation have a long history in democratic politics – but is fake news something different? Annabel Brett, John Robertson and Ben Slingo take a journey through the history of ideas, exploring the deep questions raised by fake news with a look back at an early modern political genre that manipulated the form of ‘news’. St John's College Old Divinity School, 7:30pm - 9:00pm. Booking required.

EU vs UK: In the Brexit battle will truth be the loser?

As the Brexit negotiations proceed, who will win the PR battle over Brexit and who will be the losers? What will the outcome be for Britain's future relations with Europe? Join a debate about the ramifications of Brexit for European politics and the broader issues of how narratives are formed in public discourse. With Paul Whiteley, Catherine Barnard, Robert Tombs and Leonie de Jonge. St John's College Fisher Building, 6:00pm - 7:30pm. Booking required.

Truth & lies in british film propaganda 1939-45

Joseph Goebbels once said, “The best propaganda is that which works invisibly without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative” which is why he had a profound respect for British wartime films. This lecture examines just what was so admirable and distinctive about British wartime propaganda in its feature films. From Lady Hamilton to The Way to the Stars via In Which We Serve and Millions Like Us, British film experienced a golden age of film making. But was it all based on lies? Join Dr Colin Shindler who considers the answers. St John's College Old Divinity School, 6:00pm - 7:00pm. Booking required.


Saturday 21 October

The mythical and the supernatural: Beasts and beings of St John’s College

This exhibition features wonders of the human imagination including sea monsters, chimeras, angels and demons depicted on magnificent illustrations from manuscripts, rare books and magic scrolls. The Old Library, 11:00am - 5:00pm. Drop in.


Monday 23 October

Technology and nationalism in India

What is the role of technology in India's recent economic development and how does this link to equality issues and the rise of nationalism? Has technology created greater inequality or can it close the gap? Join Jaideep Prabhu, Kavita Ramakrishnan, Surabhi Ranganathan and Bhaskar Vira for a discussion about the role of technology in the politics, economics and social issues at play in today's India. Chaired by Shinjini Das. St John's College Old Divinity School, 6:00pm - 7:30pm. Booking required

Sir Hermann Bondi Lecture: UK research in troubled political times

Sir Hermann was centrally involved with European research. EU funding, including the ERC, has become hugely important for UK researchers but will be seriously at risk if/when Brexit proceeds. Professor Dame Athene Donald (current successor to Sir Hermann at Churchill), member of the ERC’s Scientific Council, discusses how Brexit may affect UK research and the implications for our international standing in research. St John's College Fisher Building, 6:30pm - 7:30pm. Booking required.


Tuesday 24 October

Truth, freedom and authority in publishing

How might the law, market, or technology evolve to the preserve accuracy, truth, and impartiality of information, whilst maintaining people’s freedom to share thoughts and creations? Join Cambridge University Press and guests to debate whether we must choose between quality and control, or quantity and freedom. St John's College Fisher Building, 6:00pm - 7:30pm. Booking required


Wednesday 25 October

Can we believe the experts?

Have the people really had enough of experts? With economic experts taking a particular bashing since the recession, what does the future hold for economics and can it reforge its links with politics? Join economist Ha-Joon Chang, political scientist Helen Thompson, journalist Aditya Chakrabortty and editor Victoria Waldersee as they discuss whether we can improve the way research is used in informing policy. St John's College Fisher Building, 6:00pm - 7:30pm. Booking required.

We need to talk about Putin

Yes, we really do! Vladimir Putin has been running Russia since 2000 and it’s a fair bet (if anyone is still betting about politics these days) that he will win another six-year term in the 2018 elections. Yet in the West we know little about Putin or his remarkable country that has roller-coasted along since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. David Reynolds (History Faculty) and Kristina Spohr (London School of Economics) draw on their book Transcending the Cold War to bring alive Putin’s worldview, blending historical analysis with entertaining vignettes from some of his most vivid summits. St John's College Old Divinity School, 6:00pm - 7:00pm. Booking required.


Thursday 26 October

2017 Annual race inequality lecture: The realities of racism

This year’s lecture will focus on the role of uncovering historical truth to better understand ethnic relations across the centuries. Only by knowing our past and acknowledging, at times, difficult episodes in our national histories can we aim to prevent the injustices of ethnic and racial discrimination from happening again. St John's College Fisher Building, 5:30pm - 6:30pm. Booking required


Friday 27 October

The MML faculty and Schröder lecture: encountering Brexit - perspectives and challenges

Now more than ever, it is the study of language and culture that can combat stereotypes and foster the communicative skill and cross-cultural understanding needed to ensure peaceful and prosperous relations between European states. A panel discussion with David Champion (Harvard Business Review), Hans Kundnani (Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund), Oreoluwa Ogunbiyi (President, Cambridge University African Caribbean Society), Robert Wintemute (Professor of Human Rights Law, Kings College London), Margret Wintermantel (President, German Academic Exchange Service), chaired by Baroness Garden of Frognal. St John's College Fisher Building, 5:00pm - 7:00pm. Booking required. 

Pani, pahar: artist's talk and discussion

Join Toby Smith, Dr Bhaskar Vira and Dr Eszter Kovacs to discuss stories, processes and research behind this fascinating project. Combining archival imagery from University of Cambridge collections with contemporary photography and recent research, this project engages and brings together ideas about the environment and urban development in the Himalayas. St John's College Old Divinity School, 6:00pm - 7:00pm. Booking required


To book an event visit  or call 01223 766766