The Week in Higher Education

November 11, 2010

Scientists are set to bring Star Wars-style technology to the living room. Three decades after the 1977 film’s famous scene in which Princess Leia Organa appeals for help via a holographic message, US researchers have built the first system that can record, transmit and project moving 3D images without the need for special glasses. Publication of the research from the University of Arizona led to suggestions on 4 November that holographic images could be used for everything from “telemedicine” to mass entertainment. It remains to be seen whether cash-strapped vice-chancellors will follow Princess Leia’s lead and use them to appeal for help from ministers.

Forget mind-enhancing drugs: the next technology piloted for cognitive enhancement could be electric-shock treatment, it was predicted on 5 November. Neuroscientists have made the surprising discovery that electrical stimulation to the back of the head can boost the ability of university students to do maths. The effect can even be reversed by changing the flow of the current, according to research from the University of Oxford and University College London. Roi Cohen Kadosh, a member of the research team, said: “Electrical stimulation will most likely not turn you into Albert Einstein, but it might be able to help some people.” Perhaps it also explains the state of Einstein’s hair.

Channel 4 may be one of the more risqué channels on terrestrial TV, but its willingness to tackle taboos does not extend to its long-running quiz show, Countdown. It was reported on 5 November that a University of Cambridge student appearing on the show produced an unusual offering during a round in which contestants have to come up with the longest word possible from a random selection of letters. From DTCEIASHF, the student formed the word “shitface”, prompting the show’s producers to axe the round from the episode. SPLOISPTORS.

Universities worldwide may be tightening their belts, but travel budgets for senior managers appear to have survived intact. In one instance, a group of 16 university presidents from across Canada travelled to India on 8 November for a week-long charm offensive. Meanwhile, Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, was in Beijing this week as part of a delegation led by Prime Minister David Cameron. Given the importance of China and India both to universities and the wider Western economy, the air fares no doubt will be seen as money well spent.

As the tussle for funding intensifies, the University of Cambridge probably could have done without headlines about its multimillion-pound wine cellars. It was reported on 8 November that Trinity College, Cambridge’s wealthiest, has a cellar containing 25,000 bottles valued at £1.67 million in total, an average of almost £67 each. Stephen Brook, a former Trinity student, said he had fond memories of the college’s wine in the 1960s. “It has quite a few Fellows so needs a large wine cellar,” he said. Other Cambridge colleges also have valuable wine holdings, but none as fine as Trinity’s. The cellar at Churchill College, Cambridge, for example, contains more than 25,000 bottles worth a total of £287,000 – averaging just £11 a bottle. Blue Nun, perhaps?

A Nobel laureate has piled more pressure on the British government over its immigration cap, which scientists claim is in danger of crippling research in the country. Venki Ramakrishnan, an India-born American who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work at the University of Cambridge, said that if current restrictions had been in place when he moved to the UK 11 years ago, key members of his team would not have got in. The immigration cap was imposed on an interim basis in July and is due to be replaced with a permanent cap, to be discussed by Cabinet this month. It was reported on 8 November that one option under consideration is exempting big-name scientists, just as Premier League footballers are. However, Professor Ramakrishnan said that research was “all about the team, not just the leader”.

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